My Boycott on Strategy (Part 1)

Strategy is the latest word to be stricken from my vocabulary.

‘Strategy’ — especially in marketing — is invoked at random by anyone who wants an easy way to sound like they know what they’re talking about. We have a name for words like this:

Buzz words.

A buzz word, according to Dictionary.com, is “a word or phrase, often sounding authoritative or technical, that is a vogue term in a particular profession.” At some point, buzz words are used ad nauseam until they carry no meaning at all. They are over-applied and misspoken until they become an impotent series of sounds passing through both ears and falling worthlessly to the ground.

‘Strategy’ in marketing, has become a meaningless buzz word.

But, why? Why have marketers been so eager to use and abuse this word?

All marketers start their careers toiling away at the tactical level, implementing plans set forth by company leadership. They hope to display leadership potential, take on leadership responsibility and one day play leadership roles. The easiest way to attempt this is to use leadership language, even without fully understanding it. This is called aspirational behavior. We abuse the term ‘strategy’ because we desperately desire to participate at a higher level than our job descriptions allow.

Aspirational behavior is natural and universally human. We do it as children learning from our parents. We do it as consumers, emulating the lifestyles of the tax bracket above our own. We mimic those whose stations we desire. We practice their behaviors, usually failing to some degree, and eventually gain competence over time.

This cycle of aspirational behavior (practice, fail, learn) holds different consequences in different applications. In fashion, for example, styles and color palettes originate with the high-priced elite and eventually flow down the socio-economic ladder. Each season’s stuff gets adopted by the unwashed masses, misused and degraded compared to high-fashion standards, and quickly becomes no longer elite. To cope with the cycle, fashion designers must churn out new stuff every season. Basically, when a person of lower social standing purchases a high-fashion purse, it costs that person $5000 and it erodes the value of the purse for everyone else.

When a rank-and-file marketing professional misuses the word ‘strategy’, it costs that person a bit of credibility and it erodes the value of the word for everyone else.

There are two primary abuses of the word ‘strategy’ in marketing which have eroded its value and promoted it to buzz word status:

1. Referring to tactics as though they’re strategies
2. Ignoring the foundational philosophy on which a strategy must be built

I’ll define these abuses and their consequences in my next post, My Boycott on Strategy (Part 2).

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Do you ever feel like Chuck Heston?

Sometimes I do, because as it turns out, Soylent Green has something in common with your business. And like Chuck Heston, I feel like no one will believe me:

Your business is people. From yourself to your employees to your customers, your business is made out of people. Whatever you produce gets consumed by people. Whatever they pay also goes to people. How much they pay and how many of them do is based on how well you meet the desires of people.

So, why do you pretend your business is made out of numbers?

When you treat your business like it’s made out of numbers, people become a side show. A curiosity. A distraction — or even a liability. If you think your business is made out of numbers, people can tell. People know it’s not really about them. People know they’re just the pavement on which you’re walking to the bank. People aren’t dumb like numbers are.

Don’t you think they’d rather give their money to the business that knows it’s about them?

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The Folding Concrete Block

Simple. Stunning.

Genius.

Dror Benshetrit is an Israeli designer who has likely revolutionized architecture, home furnishing, art, and even humanitarianism with a single innovation. He calls it the QuaDror.

click to view at Vimeo.com (unable to embed)

It was featured in today’s SpringWise Newsletter of startup business ideas and has been covered by Fast Company, the New York Times and the Huffington Post among others.

This ‘thing’ is so unique that it’s difficult to describe, and yet, so simple that the Romans should have been using it to support the aqueducts. How have we reached the year 2011 without stumbling upon this sooner?

Essentially, the QuaDror is a three dimensional geometric design that can be constructed of almost any hard material at almost any scale and used in almost any application. It’s comprised of four interlocking L-shaped pieces (which form a square), secured to one another by bolts that act as hinges and allow the object to either lie flat, or expand into a kind of trestle-like structure.

The genius of this design lies in its simplicity. It is so versatile precisely because it’s so simple.

No matter what you’re building — a business, an organizational culture, a revenue model — do not overlook the power of simplicity. The simpler your creation the easier it will be to implement, scale, sustain, and gain buy-in from customers.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” -Albert Einstein

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E-Books Pull Ahead of Hardcovers

Time Magazine recently released numbers that reveal e-book sales in January outpaced hardcover sales for the first time in history. This is no major shock to anyone who’s not been in a coma for the past two years, nonetheless, it’s a little weird to see the pecking order of best selling book formats rearranged for the first time since the advent of paperback publishing.

As of January, 2011:

  1. Paperback
  2. E-book
  3. Hardcover

The obvious trend toward digital book consumption barrels onward. As a result, the counter trend I’ve been predicting for the past year is coming ever closer to reality: demand for a more sensually immersive reading experience than digital can provide. Specifically; the texture, weight, smell and prestige of custom, hand-made, leather bound books.

No longer is the hardcover book second only to paperback in distribution, it’s third. Furthermore, the experiential gap between consuming a hardcover book and the digital format which ousted it is larger than that between it and its former forerunner, the paperback. As the whole world continues to get swept away in the digital consumption tidal wave, a hungry few will emerge demanding more. They’ll be the most avid of readers; impassioned loyalists of literary genres; super-fans of specific authors, and they’ll want a prouder, more nostalgic, more substantive reading experience than a scrolling list of titles on a digital toy.

I may or may not be able to bring my on-demand leather binding business idea to life, but it’s an inevitable outgrowth of the digital trend. Those who recognize and act on it will be handsomely rewarded.

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Punctuation matters more than you think.

Examples courtesy of the Wizard of Ads:

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about.  You are generous, kind, thoughtful.  People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior.  You have ruined me for other men.  I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart.  I can be forever happy –will you let me be yours?

Gloria

***********************************

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is .  All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless  and inferior. You have ruined me.  For other men, I yearn.  For you, I have no feelings whatsoever.  When we’re apart, I can be forever happy.  Will you let me be?

yours,
Gloria

A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
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A Tip to Make More Money: Treat and Pay Employees Well

For people like Kip Tindell, this philosophy is a no-brainer. Kip is the founder and CEO of The Container Store, one of the largest and most recognizable retail brands in the United States. He was recently recognized by the National Retail Federation for his success with The Container Store, which is consistently listed among the ‘100 Best Places to Work’ and recognized as a Fortune top 50 employer.

Kip attributes the company’s success to one simple philosophy: if you focus on treating your employees exceptionally well, they’ll focus on treating your customers the same way.

CBS News recently interviewed Kip and other Container Store employees. Click the image below to watch the video (I couldn’t embed it here).

Just a few quotes from Kip’s interview:

“We focus on the employee the most. Not even the customer, the employee… If you take better care of the employee than anybody else, they’ll take better care of the customer than anybody else, and then wonderfully and ironically enough, the shareholder will be very happy too.

“You walk in the store and you can feel it. Everybody that’s in the store loves to be there. The customers love to be there. The employees love to be there.

“You can’t go around calling yourself an employee-first culture and then lay people off, so we didn’t do that… Everybody was very happy to not get 401K for a couple years, to freeze their salaries, because they know they’re literally saving their fellow workers’ jobs. Y’know, the team is a really beautiful human experience if it’s done right.

“I think everybody’s becoming a little bit more conscious in the way they do business. I think customers demand it. They vote with their pocket book… We’re not just being nice. It’s successful profit strategy as well.”

It’s obvious that this philosophy works. Why are so many business owners and leaders behind the learning curve? Why do so many businesses constrain their own potential for growth and success by undervaluing employees? Why do employers prefer a churn-and-burn strategy of costly employee turnover and reduced customer satisfaction over investment in long-term growth and profit?

Seriously, can anyone answer this question for me?

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Google’s SEO Game: Judge, Jury, and Executioner

As has dominated the technology and business blogosphere / twittersphere in recent weeks, jcpenney was ‘outed’ by the New York Times for the unsavory tactics of its SEO firm SearchDEX. The retailer appeared among top rankings for a plethora of terms through the 2010 holiday season as a result of links built in ways that Google deems disingenuous. The story broke in mid-February.

On January 31st — two weeks prior to the jcpenney debacle — I discussed the problem of SEO at length here on Succincity. Jcpenney was generous enough to illustrate my point.

Say what you will about my clairvoyance, but the cracks in Google’s game are becoming more visible to everyone. My advice to the current SEO players: make as much money as you can now, because Google’s autocracy is coming under pressure to tighten the screws. The game will soon be changed or completely replaced.

Hammer, meet Nail-head.
Barbara Farfan, a retail industry blogger for About.com, echoed my sentiments in her recent post on the issue. I found them to be poignant and relevant. Here are a few excerpts:

“At issue is the integrity of the Google search results. As an avid searcher and a search engine consultant, I am compelled to ask who is trying to fool who about the “integrity” of Google search results? There is little purity or integrity in Google search results when commercial e-tailing sites are part of the search engine mix…

“Every Google search result that returns a for-profit commercial result is more of a “paid” result than an organic result. No matter what combination of proactive SEO strategies a company uses, they paid for them somehow. And if Google expects any company to just sit around and hope that bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers will organically mention their company name and products without the company doing anything proactive to get the attention of bloggers, tweeters and Facebookers, then the Google search engineers are living in a virtual dream world…

“In Google’s view, the “illegal” and junky links that were hooked up to jcpenney.com skewed the “relevance” of the search engine algorithm, and inappropriately moved jcpenney to the top of Google page one results for search terms like “bedding,” “skinny jeans,” “furniture,” and “samsonite carry on luggage.” The fact of the matter is that jcpenney does sell bedding, skinny jeans, furniture, and samsonite carry on luggage. So, what’s so “irrelevant” about jcpenney being associated with any of those products?

“One of the search terms that the media focused on as being inappropriate for JC Penney was “little black dress.” At the writing of this blog, here are the companies that show up on Google page one organic search results for “little black dress,” along with the number of little black dresses that they have for sale on the landing page linked to those Google page one search results:

(Those are probably the only unsolicited, truly organic, non-affiliated incoming links those six e-tailers have received this year.)

“These are the websites that the Google algorithm tells me are the most “relevant” to me when I’m searching for a little black dress. However, the jcpenney website has 29 little black dresses for sale, so doesn’t that make jcpenney.com a more relevant website than Ann Taylor, Boston Proper, and Banana Republic?

“Really, if I was standing in any average mall and I was looking for a little black dress, would Banana Republic be one of my top six destinations? Would I look there before I looked at jcpenney? Doubtful.  So how come the Google algorithm thinks Banana Republic deserves a spot on page one and not jcpenney?

“Reportedly jcpenney currently has no little black dress page one placement because jcpenney – or someone associated with it – allegedly crossed the fabricated Google out-of-bounds line and got manually removed from page one. Google is its own judge and jury with the unbridled authority to decide that the 108 year-old company on the Largest U.S. Retailers list with 29 different style of little black dresses in inventory can no longer have a place in the little black dress page one search results.

“Jcpenney’s willful or unwitting culpability aside, does it make anyone else uncomfortable that the sole manipulator of the search engine rules also gets to act as its own omnipotent judicial body and unrestrained executioner? I think that it should. The Google corporate autocracy not only impacts a company’s revenue stream, it also manipulates the information that is and isn’t easily accessible to the world. Isn’t that something that Google fought against in China? In ways, Google itself is doing the same thing.”

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