“Know thy customer”

I met the cheerful elderly man in the corridor of the London bound Virgin Pendolino train. He must have been close to 70, or maybe 70+ (I am not particularly good at guessing people’s age). He had been advising another elderly lady on the perils of being trapped in train’s disabled toilets – or worse, to suffer the embarassment of not having pushed the right button to lock the door. Seeing me – he shrugged his shoulders and expressed his inability to understand the ‘ways’ of the new world of laptops, shuffles, mice and sliding doors.

I could see his point perfectly – pushing a similar set of buttons to do dissimilar things didn’t make sense to man who was used to closing a door with a handle (or knob) and locking with keys. Shapes communicated purpose – or function. In the electronic/digital world, it wasn’t shapes – but symbols that communicated function. The buttons were all the same.

We both agreed it was to make the toilet ‘accessible’ to people who might not have the same ability as many of us to push, pull, twist etc. However – this set of buttons had made it inaccessible to some users. The law of Unintended Consequences. Would colours (the thick rings) have helped – stereotypes like red, amber and green?

He was however, genuinely surprised with one brand though. A brand called Saga. He called to renew his car insurance – when the voice answered his call, he fumbled for a number to press (maybe he hadn’t heard the instructions: “press 1 for…”) – he was reassured to hear an actual person at the end of the line. His insurance requests were actioned in less than the full 6 minutes.

Saga follows Prof. Porter’s directive to the T – “stick to a niche”. Saga serves the 50 year+ market and obviously knows what makes them tick. Saga itself has been around for well over 50 years and possibly is know better for its cruises/holidays for the age group. Apart from its holidays and insurance business, Saga also has a magazine, a search facility online to find old/new friends and a radio station. IA-Centre has an interesting case study on the Saga105.2FM.

Like my fellow traveller in the corridor – Saga has possibly managed to delight thousands of other elderly customers in a world where marketing and advertising are increasingly youth oriented. Saga’s website has an over-emphasis on text – and may be fine for some of the ‘readers’ that scans the pages and reads it aloud to visually impaired. Though there is no indications or marks of its ccessibility credentials (those rows of neat logos at the bottom or a visible accessibility link on the home page itself). Very strangely, its home page and the second level looks distinctively different – I mean the buttons are different, the menu items on the left look different – almost everything apart from the colour. Saga’s travelshop is different too and every possible pixel is covered by a rectangle of some size or a border – and I wonder what my fellow traveller would make of these.

Like the Pink PSP I wrote about earlier, Saga seems to have developed some new peripheral (and add-on) services/products for a niche market. However, like Dodge – their excellence in one area can be undermined by the lack of brand unity – in another area. The message for brand owners is simple – regular routine audits is the key (one of my former clients, Goldfish – was a master of this) as well as to avoid the temptation of adding too many features/buttons and links on their communication pieces. And of course – keeping in touch with what the customers think. Simple? Thats just the tip of the iceberg… [Virgin train image courtsey Yappari.co.uk]

Ploughing on…

My last post dwelled on the Fiat spreading its brand values too thin – and of some of the emails I have had from you, including one of my former students pointed me to the Dodge Nitro ‘planet’ advert. And my good old academic instinct of ‘compare and contrast’ finds the perfect springboard. Dodge and Fiat. Its all about cars – but these two brands are worlds apart.

Dodge knows it customers – and in every generation there are customers who seek out their Dodge machines. Dodge leverages on its military tradition – being suppliers of ‘tough’ vehicles to the army. Many of the customers know that these cars have nothing to do with the Dodge family – the brothers sold the company in 1925 and after several mergers and acquisitions, its currently part of the Diamler-Benz stables, who in turn have carefully kept the brand distinctive and as undiluted as it possibly could.

Some of you (esp the B-Schools types) may recall Prof. Porter’s theory of Competitive Advantage – its either differentiation or cost leadership – or the third, a tricky path, is to focus on a certain segment while maintaining cost leadership. The Professor warns of a certain consequence of not following either – “stuck in the middle”! Does that describe Fiat? And can its new logo, revisiting the past, et al help it come unstuck? Dodge, in the meantime keeps ploughing on – its entrenched itself into a position that seems like home. Environmentally friendly, it isn’t – and it isn’t trying to be. Not as yet. Ploughing through the depths of the earth, knocking a few of those extinct creatures unconscious, isn’t really much of a bother for the head strong brand.

Unlike the Dodge advert, the Dodge website – while being informative (and ever so slightly overloaded), lacks the imaginative touch or the creative spark of its adverts – or any ability to bridge the wide gap between media campaign and online communication.

2009 Dodge Viper

2009 Dodge Viper

Fiat’s brand mojo

Ambling along the 20mph speed on a Monday morning rush hour you can’t help but notice the interesting number of marques, badges and names on the various cars. This morning I seemed to be in the midst of VWs, Fords and Mercs (who isn’t) and Fiats. Interestingly, if you have noticed you may see a number of different Fiat badges or marques – quite unlike, lets say, a VW or a Merc. Look at VW or Merc registered in the early 1980s or this year. The 85 model looks dated, the curves aren’t as elegant as the ones today, the grills are plasticky, the colours lack the sheen. Lets face it the 1985 model isn’t exactly new. But notice the VW badge. It will be in the same place, it will be the same size – almost. And if you look into the Think Small ads, its the same for the B&W beetle advertised in another generation.

Not Fiat.

On any day you will see a few distinctive marques – the italic capitals FIAT, reminiscent of the BBC (top right, logo from 1968-2003), the one with the wreaths – which looks straight from the early 1900s (bottom left, 2003-2006) or you might even come across the recently unveiled logo – reflecting “Fiat’s new strategy”. Fiat has a heritage of a good dozen or so logos, sometime lasting a mere few years (like the top left logo from 1901). Though many sites talk of Fiat’s new strategy – few spell out the relationship between the new logo (bottom right) and the new strategy.

Therein lies the paradox…

The new logo predates the capitalised italics logo – and according to Fiat’s site: “is a basic, strong logo that sums up in the best possible way this ongoing change that distinguishes Fiat today. A company travelling into the future which is, at the same time, proud of its historic identity.” As car manufacturers move across horizontally and vertically – in search of new markets and new customers they are at risk of diluting their core brand values and propositions. When you begin to mean a lot of things to a lot of people, you often do not stand for something – but end up being commoditised for the masses. Is this what Fiat means when it says “to move forward you sometimes need to take a step in the other direction.” Can logos truly change the culture and nature of the company or do companies and their internal change actually add a distinctive meaning to their existing logos?

Lets wait and watch if the new logo can help Fiat find its brand mojo…

Another Pink wash…

I was quite surprised to see the Pink PSP adverts in the bus shelters. Though I shouldn’t be. Cars are appearing in shades of pink and so are phones and many other electronic gadgets. This has been the marketing ‘make-up’ mantra of the not-so-creative variety. A veneer of pink may help some products fly off the shelf – but Pink PSPs?

pink-PSPAllow me to expand on that – Games and gaming seem to be the domain of males. The players are males (a decent 85% if stats are to be belived), the game scenarios are designed for males and predominantly by males. I have yet to come across a serious female game player – essentially because games are designed to be bloody (or blood thirsty) – lack adequate attention to detailing characters (or developing them) or a strong narrative. The fights, blood and gore often substitutes for storylines or characters. Games are symbolic of gender stereotyping.

Should games be for men or women – commonsense suggest otherwise. I am sure that there is a healthy middle ground or a gender neutral scenario. Or more female game designers. A shallow Pink-wash simply isn’t the solution.

A quick search over the net led me to a Wired.com article by Janelle Brown – Girl Gamers, written on 19 Nov. 1996 – almost exactly 10 years ago. Little seems to have changed apart from the skins on PSPs. And will the Girl gamers who compete with the boys on equal level, trade in their Black PSPs for the Pink ones? Or is it an optimistic illusion of some of Sony’s bright marketing/sales execs? Lets keep an eye out for the latest pink Phenomenon…

Also see: The Girl Gamer’s Manifesto

Sales versus Design?

The debate was getting emotional and charged. One side represented by the evergreen salesman – DR and the other side by yours truly. “Nothing happens until you sell it” – is DR’s contention. “Good design can only make the sales process easier – it sells itself”, I add pointing to the iPod. Can you imagine a door-to-door salesmen touting iPods or telesales agents calling up with deals?

Or think of time when the ‘think small’ advert became etched in a generation’s minds. That may have driven a decent number to the VW dealership – though I have no idea what is the ratio of people who saw the adverts to the those who made the final purchase. A good few decades later the brand is still etched in the collective consciousness.

“Selling is equally creative” adds DR. I think creativity is an attitude – anything can be approached in a creative, inventive or child-like manner: as if seeing it for the first time and bringing a fresh pair of eyes, ears or head, to the issue. As long as one isn’t creative with numbers, even accounting problems can be approached with a creative hat.

“What about the John Abraham’s Flu Relief Lozenges?”, quips in DR. I am sure design can help it sell better, possibly not faster. Though we must always remember that good design can merely make a bad product fail faster. I don’t disagree with DR on the issue of selling – “until it’s sold nothing happens” – but the process, structure, routine and ritual of sales are widely varying – and more often given a bad reputation by those who are out to make a quick buck. Perhaps I can get across the point that design is about enhancing desireability of a product or service, thereby making it more ‘sale-able’. Or perhaps DR knows already.

Of Cabbages & Kings

Of Cabbages and Kings, my original and the longest surviving of blogs (a record month with a post almost every week) isn’t exactly dead. As the name suggests – the subject area of the blog was rather wide – ranging from Type navigators to London Underground. Nothing wrong about that you may say, but it certainly lacks a certain focus – and thats what I intend to do in this blog.

A deep dive, without casting the net too wide – is the intention here. There will be the usual and occassional posting on the C&Kings blog – but again for topics that are wide off the margins and the columns.

Key question is if I can make a habit of transferring those random notes, thoughts and observations from my sketchbooks, my palm, my diary and (more importantly) from my head on to this public domain? Thoughts on Design, branding, design management and brand stickiness.

This is an extract from Lewis Carrolls’ The Walrus and the Carpenter, with the now legendary reference to Cabbages and Kings -

The Walrus and the Carpenter
Walked on a mile or so,
And then they rested on a rock
Conveniently low:
And all the little Oysters stood
And waited in a row.

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

“But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
“Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!”
“No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

“A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
“Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed–
Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
“Do you admire the view?

“It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf–
I’ve had to ask you twice!”

“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.