Friday, April 29, 2011

Price Transparency: Just Do It!

By Labor Day, airlines will have to disclose all fees, taxes, etc so customers can compare prices and make informed decisions. Lack of pricing transparency has long been a gripe among airline passengers, who see low advertised airfares and rush to buy tickets, only to discover at checkout that the "final" price is much higher, once all fees and taxes are factored in.

These days, "ancillary revenue" (from fees for checked luggage, flight changes, and so forth) adds up to nearly $8 billion in yearly ka-ching for for US airlines. That's a lot of extra money for services that once were bundled as part of the ticket price. Today's frequent fliers are savvy and dislike being nickel-and-dimed. Lack of transparency is a good way to annoy loyal customers and give them a reason to switch. No wonder Southwest Airlines has gotten traction from its no-fee luggage check policy (for 2 bags) and its no-fee ticket change policy.

Although airlines will be required to disclose fees and taxes to allow price comparisons, rental-car agencies don't and won't, most likely, without government action. Most of the 24+ consumers who commented on this New York Times article regarding rental-car pricing were not happy with the lack of price transparency. Price competition is a reality in the rental-car industry, yet the companies persist in adding layer upon layer of fees and extra charges that customers must accept or decline in the process of renting--which makes direct comparisons quite tricky.

Meanwhile, continued economic challenges are prompting many customers to research prices before they buy. Walmart's CEO points this out, saying: "Price transparency is becoming even more important." He's right. Travel marketers would win many fans and reinforce loyalty if they'd make their pricing more transparent. If a product or service is worth the money, tell customers why . . . and trust them to weigh the benefits vs cost on their own. Just do it!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Privacy vs First Amendment Rights

This week the US Supreme Court heard a case that pits doctors' and patients' right to privacy against companies' right to freely communicate with each other. Essentially, it's dataminers vs legislators, with doctors and patients stuck in the middle. Remember, there's no Constitutional right to privacy, although there is a Constitutional right to free speech.

The case came to the Court on appeal from Vermont, which passed a law banning pharmacies from selling information about which drugs are prescribed by which doctors. The drug/doctor data (scrubbed to remove individual patient info) is coveted by pharmaceutical firms that want to target doctors for promotions for specific drugs.

However, privacy advocates worry that even with "de-identification" of records, patients will be able to be identified through datamining. And Vermont's intention is to allow doctors to control what information is available to drug manufacturers about the prescriptions being written, rather than let the pharmacies control access to data.

Vermont lost a round in court when the law was deemed to infringe on companies' right to free speech, so it appealed. Supporting Vermont's appeal, 35 states and the US Department of Justice are also against allowing pharmacies to sell the doctor/drug info. On the other hand, several of the Justices seem concerned that commercial free speech may be impaired by such limits.

The outcome of this case could wind up influencing access to data for highly targeted marketing purposes in a number of industries. Which way will the Court rule?

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Royal Wedding: You're Invited (to the Marketing, Anyway)

Ever since Prince William and Kate Middleton announced their engagement, all kinds of marketers have made plans to build on their April 29th wedding.

Fashion designers favored by Kate are, of course, the most obvious beneficiaries. From souvenir stamps to plates to beers to sweets, the royal wedding is a marketing bonanza for many. There's even an app for royal weddings.

Some marketers have taken a not-so-serious approach, offering limited-edition breakfast cereals, "sick bags" (for those who are sick of all the hype), and even a LEGO-scale version of the wedding.

Serious or fun, the marketing fever comes to a head on Friday when Kate and William walk down the aisle. Expect big ratings and big post-wedding sales.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Earth Day 2011 - Any Progress?

Friday, April 22, is Earth Day. For 41 years, Earth Day has reminded us to take care of our Earth and think green. A lot of marketing and media is connected with Earth Day. For example:

  • The Wilderness Society is asking: "What are you doing this year?" and showcasing its projects.
  • NPR has a special on electronic waste, a growing problem in our society, with gadgets coming in and out of fashion and new tech appearing all the time.
  • The Lincoln Park Zoo is celebrating with its wildlife and special events.

However, an OgilvyEarth study suggests that people have good intentions yet don't act green as often as they'd like. On the other hand, Earth Day is now a recognized event all over the world, which is the first step toward changing attitudes and behavior. Happy Earth Day.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sweet Tweets Samples Treats

Topps, the candy company behind decades of baseball cards and Bazooka bubble gum, has a new product: Sweet Tweets. Each fruit-flavored candy is attached to a small note card. Have something to say to your sweetie? Each message card has an emoticon and space for a few words (not unlike a "tweet," as it happens--a fun marketing decision).

The new candy was launched via a Facebook sampling campaign called Mail a Tweet to Your Sweet. Any FB user who clicked to "like" Sweet Tweets could add a few words and have a sample sent to a relative or friend. In just 10 hours, Sweet Tweets was "liked" 12,600 times. The company mailed 20,000 units, a unique way to sample the new product and encourage trial and adoption. 

If you click to the home page of the Sweet Tweets, you'll see dozens of smiling kids and the product's tag line, "Send a Smile." (Surprisingly, I didn't see Sweet Tweets anywhere on Twitter.) Now the question is: Will the samples pay off in repeat sales and profits?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

ZipCar's Green, Tech-Savvy Appeal

ZipCar's much-anticipated IPO on the NASDAQ took place this week, raising millions more than the company expected. Although ZipCar hasn't yet reached profitability, it has gained a loyal following, particularly among younger urban residents and college/grad students who'd rather "share a car" (join and then rent for an hour or day) than own a car. Its fleet includes hybrids, BMWs, and other vehicles that can be used for vacationing, shopping, hauling, or whatever Zipsters (see below) need wheels to accomplish.

The target market being gadget-savvy, ZipCar makes it as easy as possible to reserve a car via app or text message or online. The ZipCard, above, unlocks a car parked at a pickup point (such as on campus or in a nearby neighborhood). Members are known as Zipsters because ZipCar is more than a source of transportation--it's a community (says the company) of people who care about the environment and want cost-effective, earth-friendly transportation alternatives.

Traditional rental car firms are easing into the "rent by the hour" movement (hybrids and all). However, the motivation for car sharing is different from renting, says the CEO of RelayRides, a car-sharing service that allows neighbors to share cars with neighbors. Meanwhile, ZipCar is expanding faster than ever and sees many new markets to penetrate in the coming years. Watch for ZipCars on local streets sometime soon.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Frito-Lay's Flavor Kitchen: This Week Only

What inspires Frito-Lay's snack flavors? The company is going to show us this week only, when its "Flavor Kitchen" campaign takes us into the kitchen for a sneak peek. The focus is on the all-natural ingredients that Frito-Lay is bringing to its product line.

See the Facebook page for a taste of the new campaign, streamed live during lunchtime hours from Monday to Friday. If you're in New York City, you can watch the events live on giant billboards in Times Square, as Frito-Lay's top chefs and celebrity chefs put on their aprons and get cooking. Media coverage will certainly multiply the effect of this fun multi-brand event, which also features Electrolux appliances.

Here's one of the demos:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Goodbye to the Flip

Cisco announced this morning that it's ditching the Flip video cam business as part of its restructuring plan. The end of an era is here.

I'm a fan: I owned one of the original models, upgraded to HD, and have given several Flips as gifts -- yet I understand and agree with the marketing logic behind Cisco's decision.
  • Consumer products aren't Cisco's strength or strategic focus. The Flip came to Cisco via its Pure Digital acquisition two years ago. Since then, Cisco has promoted its corporate name alongside the Flip product. But does the Flip help Cisco reinforce its image as a manufacturer of enterprise networking gear? No.
  • Technology has moved on. Now that millions of consumers carry smartphones capable of recording video, who needs a standalone Flip?
  • Competition has narrowed prices and margins. Cisco would be forever improving the Flip without adding much to its price, thanks to intense competition from rivals with strong consumer identities.
Cisco is doing the right thing. Much as I like the Flip and applaud its pioneering efforts, this is a good time for Cisco to put the spotlight back on its enterprise offerings.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Brand Identity: Be Distinctive, Be Consistent

Martin Lindstrom writes in Fast Company about the need to think beyond the logo when communicating brand identity. Every aspect of the product, packaging, Web site, ads, etc. must be distinctive and contribute to creating and reinforcing a unique brand identity. Lindstrom suggests a wonderful test: Cover up the logo on your ads, packages, Web site, and see whether your brand identity still shines through.

With Easter coming up, I used Lindstrom's test on the Web sites of several well-known candy brands. Try it for yourself. First, go to M&M's home page. Take off the m and is it distinctive? (When I visited, the colors had been changed to Easter pastels, a nice seasonal touch.) Then visit the Hershey site, the Ghiradelli site, Godiva, Whitman's, and See's Candies.

Now try the same test on a few computer Web sites: Dell, Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Acer. Which are most distinctive and convey the brand identity most effectively?

It's difficult to look at any of these pages without thinking of the other marketing tactics used by these companies. The shape and design of an iPad2 (above) comes to mind, for example. That's a good thing, from a marketing perspective. But could you identify the Apple home page if the apple wasn't there?

Friday, April 8, 2011

ThinkGeek's "Gotcha"--Viral Marketing and Research

Did you see ThinkGeek's April Fool's products? If not, click here and browse this year's crop, along with the fun items made up for previous years. They're worth a few minutes of mousing around. You'll smile!

Online/catalog marketer ThinkGeek rings up serious profits from its $76 million in annual sales, and the company is growing like kudzu. On any day other than April 1st, its products range from the very practical to the highly whimsical, with descriptions written by some of the best copywriters in the business (IMHO).

This year's April Fool's products included the Playmobil Mini-Apple Store (Genius Bar shown above).  As silly as these fake products may be, ThinkGeek gets a lot of mileage from its April Fool's pages. They're great for stirring up a storm of viral marketing and lots of free publicity as media outlets comment on the gag items.

Along the way, ThinkGeek throws in a little bit of marketing research. If you click to buy an April Fool's product, you're taken to a screen titled "Gotcha!" Right below, it asks the real question: "Want these products for real?! Let us know!" Check the boxes for any fake product you might be interested in, and leave your e-mail address. Who knows, ThinkGeek might just put Angry Birds Pork Rinds into production if enough people leave their e-mail addresses.

Actually, Wired's Gadget Lab blog notes that more than a few ThinkGeek prank products wind up as real after a few months. It's pushing for this year's Star Wars Lightsaber Popsicle kit to go on the market--by summer.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Fitting Rooms: The "Last Mile" of Clothing Retailers

The last mile usually refers to the final connection between a telecom firm and its customers. It's been a challenge for all kinds of marketers trying to complete the distribution link to the customer's door (or office).

Clothing stores have a different "last mile," IMHO: The fitting room. If a customer takes clothing into the fitting room, there's a much, much better chance she'll take it home (assuming it fits). So what happens in the fitting room can make or break the sale.

Online retailers (and some store retailers) are using technology to show customers how clothing will fit. The auction/retail site eBay has an app to let you see how sunglasses will look before you buy. Virtual fitting rooms take some of the risk out of buying online, but when the customer is in the store, the fitting room is the last mile.

However, most fitting rooms aren't known for their customer-friendly ambiance. Now that's changing as stores upgrade this vital connection in the last mile. Some are putting fitting rooms in more central locations, rather than tucked into a faraway corner. Some are enlarging individual rooms, adding furniture, changing lighting. Macy's has tested a virtual fitting room in the store (see above), which not only lets the shopper see the "fit" but allows friends to see and comment, too.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Rolls Royce Speeds Along in Style

Forty years after its bankruptcy (due to overspending on aircraft engine development), the UK-based car and engine maker Rolls Royce is speeding along. Owned by BMW, Rolls is accelerating sales even faster than the recession is receding. Last year's sales were more than twice those of 2009, a trend that Rolls wants to build on for this year.

One reason is red-hot sales in China, where (no surprise) the brand is a major status symbol. In fact, China is now Rolls's second-largest market, after the U.S.

Another reason for Rolls's recent success is the Ghost, pictured here, an entry-level Rolls priced lower than the Phantom but with the quality, luxury, and elegance that brand fans expect.

Looking ahead, Rolls is going green with an electric Phantom--something its customers have not requested, but the company feels is necessary. In the short-term, Prince William and his bride, Kate Middleton, will be driven to their Westminster Abbey wedding in style in a Rolls. The biggest marketing budget in the world can't buy that kind of exposure!