Here in late 2017, the biggest trends are: the 24 hour news cycle, animosity in broadcast and online media, fatigue from constant connection and interaction, international threats and our political climate. The holiday season is in the background struggling for attention.
How are people tuning out of this cacophony to get in the mood for the holidays?
The answer: Christmas movies! And which channel has 75% share of the new movies in 2017? If you have watched any TV since October, you’d know that it’s The Hallmark Channel. THC has produced over 20 original movies for the 2017 Christmas season and has seen viewership grow by 6.7% per year since 2013. THC is on track to surpass the 2016 season in viewership and its brand image is solidly wholesome.
Starting in October, THC runs seasonal programming with its successful “The Good Witch” series (no vampires!) and continues with “Countdown to Christmas” featuring original Hallmark-produced content.
Hallmark spent decades preparing to capture the benefits of these trends. It had become a source of family oriented, holiday-themed programming especially popular in recent years. Once only an ink and paper company, Hallmark expanded strategically in the 1970s with ornaments and cultural greeting cards and again in 1984 with its acquisition of Crayola drawing products. The company moved into direct retail in 1986 and ecommerce in the mid-1990s. Hallmark eCards was launched in 2005.
Hallmark capitalized on branded media content originally to support the core business and it now generates profits as a standalone business. In 2001, the Hallmark Channel was launched. The Hallmark Movie Channel was developed in 2004 which became Hallmark Movies and Mysteries in 2014. This year, the Hallmark Drama channel was launched further leveraging the brand.
Many companies sponsored radio shows in the 1920s through the war years. Serials featuring one company’s products appeared in 1928 on radio. In 1952, Proctor and Gamble sponsored the first TV soap opera featuring one company (“The Guiding Light”). But The Hallmark Hall of Fame was there first on Christmas Eve in 1951 sponsoring a made-for-TV opera, “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”
Written by Gian Carlo Menotti in less than two months and timed for a one hour TV slot, “Amahl” has become, probably, the most performed opera in history.
Hallmark wasn’t the first mover in sponsored media content, but it had learned to experiment with new media. The company was positioned to take advantage of the trend toward family friendly broadcast content and this year was ready to give the nation a place to rest and escape from the chaos. A bit like the story of Amahl and Christmas itself.
Once just a card company, Hallmark followed market trends to expand its business and become a leader in content marketing which is now one of the hottest areas in all marketing. And both the new video content and large library were ready for the current trend- streaming video!
For most consumers an Android-based phone from one of the various manufacturers, most likely bought through a wireless provider if in the USA, does pretty much everything the consumer wants. Developers of most consumer apps, such as games, navigation, shopping, etc. make sure their products work on all phones. For that reason, the bulk of consumers are happy to buy their phone for $200 or less, and most don’t even care what version of Android it runs. As a stand-alone tool an Android phone does pretty much everything they want, and they can afford to replace it every year or two.
But the business community has different requirements.
And because iOS has superior features, Apple continues to dominate the enterprise environment:
- All iPhones are encrypted, giving a security advantage to iOS. Due to platform fragmentation (a fancy way of saying Android is not the same on all platforms, and some Android phones run pretty old versions) most Android phones are not encrypted. That leads to more malware on Android phones. And, Android updates are pushed out by the carrier, compared to Apple controlling all iOS updates regardless of carrier. When you’re building an enterprise app, these security issues are very important.
- iOS is seamless with Macs, and can be pretty well linked to Windows if necessary for an apps’ purpose. Android plays well with Chromebooks, but is far less easy to connect with established PC platforms. So if you want the app to integrate across platforms, such as in a corporation, it’s easier with iOS.
- iPhones come exactly the same, regardless of the carrier. Not true for Android phones. Almost all Androids come with various “junkware.” These apps can conflict with an enterprise app. For enterprise app developers to make things work on an Android phone they really need to “wipe” the phone of all apps, make sure each phone has the same version of Android and then make sure users don’t add anything which can cause a user conflict with the enterprise app. Much easier to just ask people to use an iPhone.
- iOS backs up to iCloud or via iTunes. Straightforward and simple. And if you need to restore, or change devices, it is a simple process. But in the Android world companies like Verizon and Samsung integrate their own back-up tools, which are inconsistent and can be quite hard for a developer to integrate into the app. Enterprise apps need back-ups, and making that difficult can be a huge problem for enterprise developers who have to support thousands of end users. And the fact that Android restores are not consistent, or reliable, makes this a tough issue.
- Search is built-in with iOS. Simple. But Android does not have a clean and simple search feature. And the old cross-platform inconsistencies plague the various search functions offered in the Android world. When using an enterprise app, which may well have considerable complexity, accessing an easy search function is a great benefit.
Most of these issues are no big deal for the typical smartphone consumer who just uses their phone independently of their work. But when someone wants to create an enterprise app, these become really important issues. To make sure the app works well, meeting corporate and end user needs, it is much easier, and better, to build it on iOS.
This allows Apple to price well above the market average
Today Apple charges around $800 for an iPhone 7, and expectations are for the iPhone 8 to be priced around $1,000. Because Apple’s pricing is some 4-5x higher, it allows Apple’s iOS revenue to actually exceed the revenue of all the Android phones sold! And because Android phone manufacturers compete on price, rather than features and capabilities, Apple makes almost ALL the profit in the smartphone hardware business. Even as iPhone unit volume has struggled of late, and some analysts have challenged Apple’s leadership given its under 20% market share, profits keep rolling in, and up, for the iPhone.
By taking the lead with enterprise app developers Apple assures itself of an ongoing market. Three years ago I pointed out the importance of winning the developer war when IBM made its huge commitment to build enterprise apps on iOS. This decision spelled doom for Windows phone and Blackberry — which today have inconsequential market shares of .1% and .0% (yes, Blackberry’s share is truly a rounding error in the marketplace.) Blackberry has become irrelevant. And having missed the mobile market Microsoft is now trying to slow the decline of PC sales by promoting hybrid devices like the Surface tablet as a PC replacement. But, lacking developers for enterprise mobile apps on Microsoft O/S it will be very tough for Microsoft to keep the mobile trend from eventually devastating Windows-based device sales.
As the world goes mobile, devices become smaller and more capable. The need for two devices, such as a phone and a PC, is becoming smaller with each day. Those who predicted “nobody can do real work on a smartphone” are finding out that an incredible amount of work can be done on a wirelessly connected smartphone. As the number of enterprise apps grows, and Apple remains the preferred developer platform, it bodes well for future sales of devices and software for Apple — and creates a dark cloud over those with minimal share like Blackberry and Microsoft.
Amid all the political news last week it was easy to miss announcements in the business world. Especially one that was relatively small, like Starbucks announcement on Thursday July 27, 2017 that it was closing all 379 of its Teavana stores. While these will be missed by some product fanatics, the decision is almost immaterial given that these units represent only about 3% of Starbucks US stores, and about 1.5% of the 25,000 Starbucks globally.
Yet, closing Teavana is a telltale sign of concern for Starbucks investors.
Starbucks founding CEO Howard Schultz returned to the top job in January, 2008, promising to get out of distractions such as music production, movie production, internet sales, grocery products, liquor products and even in-store food sales in order to return the company to its “core” coffee business. Since then Starbucks valuation has risen some 5.5-6 fold, from $9.45/share to the recent range of $54 to $60 per share. A much better return than the roughly doubling of the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the same timeframe.
Yet, one should take time to evaluate what this closing means for the long-term future of Starbucks. This is the second time Starbucks made an acquisition only to shut it down. In 2015 Starbucks closed all 23 La Boulange bakery cafes, with little fanfare. Now, after paying $620M to buy Teavana in 2012, they are closing all those stores. While leadership blamed its decision on declining mall visits (undoubtedly a fact) for the closures, Teavana is not missing goals due to the Amazon Effect. There are multiple options for how to market Teavana’s fresh and packaged products far beyond mall store locations. Choosing to close all stores indicates leadership has minimal interest in the brand.
Starbucks’ focus leaves little opportunity for new growth
It increasingly appears that today’s Starbucks literally isn’t interested, or able, to do anything other than build, and operate, more Starbucks stores. And Starbucks is clearly doubling down on its plans to be Starbucks store-centric. The company opened 575 new units in the last year, and announced plans to open more stores creating 68,000 additional US jobs in the next 5 years. Further, Starbucks is paying $1.3B to buy the half of its China business previously owned by a partner. Clearly, leadership continues to tighten company focus on the “core” coffee store business for the future.
This sounds great short-term, given how well things have gone the last 8 years. But there are concerns. Sales are up 4% last quarter, but that is wholly based upon higher prices. Customer counts are flat, indicating that stores are not attracting new customers from competitors. Sales gains are due to average ticket prices increasing 5%, which is marginal and likely refers to higher priced products. Starbucks is now relying completely on new stores to create incremental growth, since bringing in new customers to existing stores is not happening.
Frequently this stagnant store sales metric indicates store saturation. A bad sign. Does the US, or international markets, really need more, new Starbucks stores? It was 2010 when comedian Lewis Black had a successful viral rant (PG version) claiming that when he observed a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks he knew it was the end of civilization.
What happens when the market doesn’t need new Starbucks stores?
One does have to wonder when the maximum number of Starbucks will be reached. Especially given the ever growing number of competitors in all markets. Direct competitors such as Caribou Coffee, The Coffee Bean, Seattle’s Best, Gloria Jean’s, Costa, Lavazza, Tully’s, Peet’s and literally dozens of chain and independent coffee shops are competing for Starbucks’ customers. Simultaneously competition from low priced alternatives is emerging from brands like Dunkin Donuts and McDonald’s, now catering more to coffee lovers. And non-coffee fast casual shops are seeking to attract more people for congregating, such as Panera, Fuddruckers, Pei Wei, TGI Friday’s and others. All of these are competitors, either directly or indirectly, for the customer dollars sought by Starbucks. Are more Starbucks stores going to succeed?
As McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and other fast food chains learned the hard way, there comes a time when a brand has built all the market needs. Then leadership has to figure out how to do something else. McDonald’s invested heavily in Boston Market and Chipotle’s, but let those high growth operations go when it decided to refocus on its “core” hamburger business – leading to heavy valuation declines. Starbucks is closing Teavana, but should it? When will Starbucks saturate? And what will Starbucks do to grow when that happens?
Starbucks has had a great run. And that run appears not fully over. But long-term investors have reason to worry.
Is it smart to make such a huge bet on China?
Will store growth successfully continue, with all the stores that already exist?
Will direct and indirect competitors eat away at market share?
What will Starbucks do when it has reached it market maximum, and it doesn’t seem to have any emerging new store concepts to build upon?
Amazon just had another record Prime Day, with sales up 60%. And the #1 product sold was Amazon’s Echo Dot speaker. At $34.99 it surpassed last year’s unit sales by seven-fold. And the traditional Echo speaker, marked down 50% to $90, broke all previous sales records.
Amazon just took a commanding lead in the voice assistant platform market
These Echo sales most likely sealed Amazon’s long-term leadership in the war to be the #1 voice assistant. Amazon already has 70% market share in voice activated speakers, nearly 3 times #2 provider Google. And all other vendors in total barely have 5% share.
While it may seem like digital speakers are no big deal, speaker sales are analogous to iPhone sales when evaluating the emergence of smartphones and apps. The iPhone seemed like a small segment until it became clear smartphones were the new personal technology platform. Apple’s early lead allowed iOS to dominate the growth cycle, making the company intensely profitable.
Echo and Echo Dot aren’t just speakers, but interfaces to voice activated virtual assistants. For Echo the platform is Amazon’s Alexa. Alexa is to voice activated devices and applications what iOS was to Smartphones. By talking to Alexa customers are able to do many things, such as shopping, altering their thermostats, opening and closing doors, raising and lowering blinds, recording people in their homes — the list is endless. And as that list grows customers are buying more Alexa devices to gain greater productivity and enhanced lifestyle. Echos are entering more homes, and multiplying across rooms in these homes.
Do you remember when early iPhone ads touted “there’s an app for that?” That tagline told customers if they changed from a standard mobile phone to a smartphone there were a lot of advantages, measured by the number of available apps. Just like iOS apps gave an advantage to owning an iPhone, Alexa skills give an advantage to owning Echo products. In the last year the number of skills available for Alexa has exploded, growing from 135 to 15,000. Quite obviously developers are building on Alexa much faster than any other voice assistant.
By radically cutting the price of both Echo Dot and Echo, and promoting sales, Amazon is creating an installed base of units which encourages developers to write even more skills/apps.
The more Alexa devices are installed, the more likely developers will write additional skills for Alexa. As more devices lead to more skills, skills leads to more Alexa/Echo capability, which encourages more people to buy Alexa activated devices, which further encourages even more skills development. It’s a virtuous circle of goodness, all leading to more Amazon growth.
For marketers it is important to realize that success really doesn’t correlate with how “good” Alexa works. Google’s Assistant and Microsoft’s Cortana perform better at voice recognition and providing appropriate responses than Alexa and Siri. But there are relatively few (almost no) devices in the marketplace built with Assistant or Cortana as the interface. Developers need their skills/apps to be on platforms customers use. If customers are buying speakers, thermostats and televisions that are embedded with Alexa, then developers will write for Alexa. Even if it has shortcomings. It’s not the product quality that determines the winner, but rather the ability to create a base of users.
It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker. Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales. By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.
It is genius for Amazon to promote Echo and Echo Dot, selling both cheaper than any other voice activated speaker. Even if Amazon is making almost no profit on device sales. By using their retail clout to build an Alexa base they make the decision to create skills for Alexa easy for developers.
This is a horrible problem for Google, #2 in this market, because Google does not have the retail clout to place millions of their speakers (and other devices) in the market. Google is not a device company, nor a powerful retailer of Android devices. The Android device makers need to profit from their devices, so they cannot afford to sell devices unprofitably in order to build an installed base for Google. And because Android’s platform is not applied consistently across device manufacturers, Google Assistant skills cannot be assured of operating on every Android phone. All of which makes the decision to build Google Assistant skills problematic for developers.
Can Apple Stop the Alexa juggernaut?
The game is not over. Apple would like customers to use Siri on their iPhones to accomplish what Amazon and Alexa do with Echo. Apple has an enormous iPhone base, and all have Siri embedded. Perhaps Apple can encourage developers to create Siri-integrated apps which will beat back the Amazon onslaught?
Today, Apple customers still cannot use Siri to control their Apple TV (Though as of August, 2017, it’s been improved.), or make payments with ApplePay, for example. Nor can iPhone users tell Siri to execute commands for remote systems which are controlled by apps, like unlocking doors, turning on appliances, shooting remote security video or placing an on-line order. Apple has a lot of devices, and apps, but so far Siri is not integrated in a way that allows voice activation like can be done with Alexa.
Additionally, as big as the iPhone installed base has become, when comparing markets the actual raw number of speakers could catch up with iPhones. Echo Dot is $35. The cheapest iPhone is the SE, at $399 (on the Apple site although available from Best Buy at $160.) And an iPhone 7 starts at $650. The huge untapped Apple markets, such as China and India, will find it a lot easier to purchase low cost speakers than iPhones, especially if their focus is to use some of those 15,000 skills. And because of the low pricing ($35 to $90) it is easy to buy multiple devices for multiple locations in one’s home or office.
Will we look back and call Echo a Disruptive Innovation?
Recall the wisdom of Clayton Christensen‘s “Innovator’s Dilemma.” The incumbent keeps improving their product, hoping to maintain a capability lead over the competition. But eventually the incumbent far overshoots customer needs, developing a product that is overly enhanced. The disruptive innovator enters the market with a considerably “less good” product, but it meets customer needs at a much lower price. People buy the cheaper product to meet their limited goal, and bypass the more capable but more expensive early market leader.
Doesn’t this sound remarkably similar to the development of iPhones (now on version 8 and expected to sell at over $1,000) compared with a $35 speaker that is far less capable, but still does 15,000 interesting things?
The biggest loser in this new market is Microsoft
This week Microsoft announced another 1,500 layoffs in what has become an annual bloodletting ritual for the PC software giant. But even worse was the announcement that Microsoft would no longer support any version of Windows Phone OS version 8.1 or older – which is 80% of the Windows Phone market. Given that Microsoft has less than 2% market share, and that less than .4% of the installed smartphone base operates on Windows Phone, killing support for these phones will lead to sales declines. This action, along with gutting the internal developer team last year, clearly indicates Microsoft has given up on the phone business for good. This means that now Microsoft has no device platform for Cortana, Microsoft’s voice assistant, to use.
Microsoft ignored smartphones, allowing Apple’s iOS to become the early standard. Apple rapidly grew its installed base. Microsoft could not convince developers to write for Windows Phone because there weren’t enough devices in the market. Without a phone base, with tablet and hybrid sales flat to declining, and with PC sales in the gutter Cortana enters the market DOA (Dead On Arrival.) Even if it were the best voice assistant on the planet developers will not create skills for Cortana because there are no devices out there using Cortana as the interface.
So Microsoft completely missed yet another market. This time the market for voice activated devices in the smart phone, smart car or any other smart device in the IoT marketplace. It missed mobile, and now it has missed voice assist. As PC sales decline, Microsoft’s only hope is to somehow emerge a big winner in cloud storage and services (IaaS or Infrastructure as a Service) with Azure. But, Azure was a late-comer to the cloud market and is far behind Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services.) Amazon has +40% market share, which is 40% more than the share of Microsoft, Google and IBM combined.
Build the base and developers will come…
There has been a lot of press about Millennial entrepreneurs the last 2 years. Young folks – mostly boys – dropping out of high school to start their own businesses at ages as young as 15. One of these, Noah Miller, who started a sports web site at 15 and later a creative agency asked to join my network on Linked-in. Then he asked me to look into the topic of young entrepreneurs and see what lessons we could learn.
1 – If you are really good at something at a young age, continue to work at it
Ben Pasternak liked gaming, and he liked apps. So at 15 he wrote a game-like app and put it on iTunes. 1.3million downloads later he was a young superstar. Since then he’s created two more apps (Flogg and Monkey.) His young hobby led to building strong programming skills, which when linked to identifying what appeals to Millenials turned into apps people really use.
George Matus started flying drones at age 12. He loved it so much he started modifying drones, and building his own. He published videos of his exploits on YouTube, and convinced drone makers to let him be a tester. After 6 years of working on Drones he now has his own Peter Thiel funded company making drones. So far no products on the market, but he is working at it.
Whether iOS apps or drones will be a long-term career is hard to say. But by building strong skills in new technologies with large markets and high growth rates these fellows created business opportunities. You don’t have to be a Millenial to do that.
2 – Take advantage of trends while they are hot
Collecting sneakers is a remarkably big market. Most older folks would call it a fad, thinking nobody will collect sneakers for long. But, it doesn’t really matter if a trend is going to be long-lived, or not, if you are willing to jump in and help push the trend along.
Fifteen year old Ben Kapelushnik liked sneakers. He wanted money to buy more. So he started buying multiple pairs of collectible sneakers and selling the “extra” pairs at a profit. To grow he networked with sneaker sellers to figure out how he could get in line early and buy many pair. Then he networked hard as he could to find associations with big time sneaker collectors, like rappers and other creative artists. Now he has a business buying and selling sneakers. How long will the fad last? Who knows – but Ben is making money by taking advantage of a hot trend.
Connor O’Neil saw the same phenomenon. He thought “why don’t I go source things people want?” So he created a web site where buyers can request he source sneakers, T-shirts and other items. He then searches the web, sourcing the items manually and with bots that will make instantaneous purchases of hard to find items. He charges customers a fee to find what they want. By meeting customer needs for trendy items, he finds an opportunity for profit.
At 16 Casey Adams started networking on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and other social media. After he built up a following of several thousand followers he began offering them t-shirts and wristbands. Pretty soon he was generating $5k/month in revenue. While many older folks still think social media, and Snapchat in particular, is a time-waster, Casey is making money on the obvious trend toward all things social. He’s leveraging his social network to sell things – and teaching other people how to do the same.
Are Bitcoins long-term currency? Will crypto-currency replace things like Dollars and Euros? Most older generation folks don’t think so, and view this as another fad. But Erik Finman saw the trend at age 12, and started buying Bitcoins. A few trades later and he turned $1,000 into $100,000. A few more trades and Finman had a stash worth over $1,000,000. Are Bitcoins the next Tulip bulbs? You can research the economists for opinions on that. But as long as the trend is growing, Erik Finman is making money.
Peter Szabo was only 12 when he used a Google search to identify ways to make money on the internet. He discovered making Facebook ads for affiliates could pay off – in pennies at first, but as volume rose these became dollars. Since so few older people knew how to manage a Facebook ad budget, by age 18 he created an on-line agency focused on maximizing value (and return) for Facebook advertising. You don’t have to be a Millennial to recognize the growth of new platforms and help people use them to make money.
3 – There has never been a better time to be a self-promoter
Today anyone can claim to be “great” at anything using the web. There are so few genuine ways to measure quality and results when it comes to anything on the web that if you say it enough, and find enough testimonials, you can be very convincing.
Noah Miller started a sports web site at age 15 using a group of writers he amassed via Twitter connections. Sports Crave had some success with USAToday and Google before Noah closed it at age 17. Based on his claims of great success he’s now promoting his new creative agency, Colour Medium, which has nothing more than a flash page. But the web allows Noah to position himself at the forefront of creative.
Benji Taylor at age 18 has opened a new on-line creative agency named Next Exit focused on art for the music industry. By forging relationships with known young musicians he has positioned his agency at the top of the creative spectrum for his target customers. Given how fast musicians come and go in the limelight, who knows how long his testimonials will stand up. But as long as people know the name of those who know his name he is leveraging those associations to crown himself the king of that industry.
Eighteen year old Josh King Madrid, known as Jet, has built a business on seemingly nothing more than a lifestyle. It is wholly unclear if Jet has ever actually created a profitable business selling anything physical or digital. But what he has done is convince lots of Millenials that he knows the lifestyle they want to lead, and he can tell them how to lead it. So now, largely without any clear source of how he obtained any knowledge about succeeding at business, he is proselytizing how young people can be independent, self-actualized and living the “Jet Set” lifestyle at his events. Jet is one of the best descriptions of how self-promotion can succeed in today’s social-media world, leading people to believe they should listen to you primarily because of the image you portray.
Overall Lessons from these 10 under 20 entrepreneurs
There is precious little to support the grandiose success claims of most Millennial entrepreneurs. They claim huge revenues and wealth, but in most cases it is impossible to prove their claims, and most support comes down to number of followers, or testimonials of some celebrity. But, that does not mean we can’t learn from what they did to achieve their current fame:
- Use social media exhaustively. Over-communicate. Use Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. over and over and over to communicate your value and your message. These platforms are dirt cheap, so hard work there can make up for few dollars.
- Take big risks, especially if you have little to lose. Most folks are hamstrung by the commitments of family, mortgage, car payments, etc. If you remove these bindings you can take big risks, like rolling over thousands of dollars worth of crypto-currency. And if something fails, never call it a failure. Just a learning experience you’ve moved beyond.
- Don’t try to improve something that already exists. Do something new. Develop a new app, a new drone, a site focused on selling collectible sneakers. It is cheaper, and more likely to succeed, if you are an early entrant in something new and growing.
- Hype is good. Pre-announce everything. And announce that your next thing (whether a drone, a web site, an exchange site or something else) is going to be HUGE. It will be the VERY BEST EVER. Do not be deterred by feeling the need to prove any of your claims, just make big claims with tremendous bravado.
- Take credit for anything that goes right. None of these people ever say they were lucky. Whatever went right was always do to their inherent insight, skill or genius.
- Stay out of specifics. Talk in platitudes. Especially statements that appeal to other Millenials.
- “Live your own life if you want to succeed.”
- “Believe in yourself 1,000%. That’s what truly matters.”
- “Don’t trust employers or education. Trust only yourself.”
- “Self-education is better than schools. You can learn more on YouTube than any classroom. Teachers are nay-sayers.”
- “Do what you are passionate about.”
- “Millennials are special. Millennials are smarter and better than older people.”
- Select good parents. I was struck by the fact that almost all these young people had parents and/or grandparents that were physicians, PhDs, successful real estate developers, successful business people. There is no doubt they benefited at their young age from families that had resources and skills that are not available to the vast majority of folks.
Is ongoing success pre-ordained?
I remember the student counsel President of my school, Mr. Popularity, who dropped out of college to open a string of pizza shops. He received ample praise and publicity for his young entrepreneurial success. But after a few setbacks the pizza shops failed, he took work as a salesman for a liquor distributor, became an alcoholic and lost his family. I was glad he found success early, and saddened that he wasn’t the wunderkind many people foisted upon him.
Life is not a one round fight. It will be interesting to see who among these, if any, go on to do great things in business, politics or another arena. While they are full of chutzpah today, life has a way of throwing many derailing curves into everyone’s path. But…
…that does not mean their early success can’t teach us some important lessons that can be applied, regardless of our age.
The words “search” and “Google” are practically synonymous. We’ve even turned the name of the ubiquitous web application into a verb by telling people to “Google it.” And that’s good, because Alphabet’s revenue (that’s Google’s parent company) soared more than 25% in the last quarter, and over 90% of Alphabet’s revenue comes from Google AdWords. The more people search using Google, the more money Alphabet makes.
Chart courtesy of Martin Armstrong at Statista.com
But ever since Facebook came along, a new trend has started emerging. People often want answers to their questions within the context of their community. So “searches” are changing. People are going back to what they did before Google existed – they are asking for information from their friends. But online. And primarily using Facebook.
There is no doubt Google dominates keyword searching. But that type of searching has its shortcomings. How often have you found yourself doing multiple searches — adding words, adding phrases, dropping words, etc. trying to find what you were seeking? It’s a common problem, and we all know people who are better “Googlers” than others because of their skill at putting together key words to actually find what we want. And how often do we find ourselves lost in the initial batch of ads, but not finding the link we want? Or going through several pages of links in search of what we seek?
Context often matters. Take the classic problem of finding a place to eat. Googling an answer requires we enter the location, type of food, price point, and other info — which often doesn’t lead us to the desired information, but instead puts us into some kind of web site, or article, with restaurant review. What seems an easy question can be hard to answer when relying on key words.
But, we know how incredibly easy it is for a friend to answer this question. So when seeking a place to eat we use Facebook to ask our friends “hey, any ideas on where I should eat dinner?” Because they know us, and where we are, they fire back specific answers like “the Mexican place two blocks north is just for you,” or “spend the money to eat at that place across the street – pricey but worth it.” Your friends are loaded with context about you, your habits, your favorites and they can give great answers much faster than Google.
Think of these kind of referrals – for food, entertainment, directions, quick facts, local info — as “context based searches” rather than referrals. Instead of making a query with a string of key words, we use context to derive the answer — and our friends. Most people undertake far more of these kind of “searches” than keywords every day.
Even though Google is still growing incredibly fast, context searching — or referrals — pose a threat. People will use their network to answer questions. The web birthed on-line data, and we all quickly wanted engines to help us find that data. We were excited to use Excite, Lycos, InfoSeek, AltaVista and Ask Jeeves to name just a few of the early search engines. We gravitated toward Google because it was simply better. But with the growth of Facebook today we can ask our friends a question faster, and easier, than Google — and often we obtain better results.
Both Google and Facebook rely on ads for most of their revenue. But if consumer goods companies, event promoters, apparel manufacturers and other “core advertisers” realize that people are using Facebook to ask for information, rather than searching Google, where do you think they will spend their on-line ad dollars? Isn’t it better to have an ad for diapers on the screen when someone asks “what diapers do you like best?” than relying on someone to search for diaper reviews?
This is why Google+ with its Groups and Google Hangouts was such a big deal. Google+ allows users to come together in discussions much like Facebook. But Plus, Groups and Hangouts never really caught on, and Plus isn’t nearly as popular as Facebook discussions, or Instagram picture sharing or WhatsApp messaging. Today, when it comes to referral traffic Facebook has eclipsed Google. Five years ago most people would have guessed this would never happen.
I’m not saying that Google searches will decline, nor am I saying Google will stop growing, nor am I saying that Google’s other revenue generators, like YouTube, won’t grow. I am saying that Facebook as a platform is growing incredibly fast, and becoming an ever more powerful tool for users and advertisers. Possibly a lot more powerful than Google as people use it for more and more information gathering — and referrals. The more people make referrals on Facebook, the more it will attract advertisers, and potentially take searches away from Google.
By comparison, this moment may be like the late 1980s when PC sales finally edged ahead of Apple Mac sales. At the time it didn’t look deadly for Apple. But it didn’t take long for the Wintel platform to dominate the market, and the Mac began its slide toward being a submarket favorite.
(Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
Apple’s stock is on a tear. After languishing for well over a year, it is back to record high levels. Once again Apple is the most valuable publicly traded company in America, with a market capitalization exceeding $700 billion. And pretty overwhelmingly, analysts are calling for Apple’s value to continue rising.
But today’s Apple, and the Apple emerging for the future, is absolutely not the Apple which brought investors to this dance. That Apple was all about innovation. That Apple identified big trends – specifically mobile – then created products that turned the trend into enormous markets. The old Apple knew that to create those new markets required an intense devotion to product development, bringing new capabilities to products that opened entirely new markets where needs were previously unmet, and making customers into devotees with really good quality and customer service.
That Apple was built by Steve Jobs. Today’s Apple has been remade by Tim Cook, and it is an entirely different company.
Today’s Apple – the one today’s analysts love – is all about making and selling more iPhones. And treating those iPhone users as a “loyal base” to which they can sell all kinds of apps/services. Today’s Apple is about using the company’s storied position, and brand leadership, to milk more money out of customers that own their devices, and expanding into adjacent markets where the installed base can continue growing.
UBS likes Apple because they think the services business is undervalued. After noting that it today would stand alone as a Fortune 100 company, they expect those services to double in four years. Bernstein notes services today represents 11% of revenue, and should grow at 22% per year. Meanwhile they expect the installed base of iPhones to expand by 27% – largely due to offshore sales – adding further to services growth.
Analysts further like Apple’s likely expansion into India – a previously almost untapped market. CEO Cook has led negotiations to have Foxxcon and Wistron, the current Chinese-based manufacturers, open plants in India for domestic production of iPhones. This expansion into a new geographic market is anticipated to produce tremendous iPhone sales growth. Do you remember when, just before filing for bankruptcy, Krispy Kreme was going to keep up its valuation by expanding into China?
Of course, with so many millions of devices, it is expected that the apps and services to be deployed on those devices will continue growing. Likely exponentially. The iOS developer community has long been one of Apple’s great strengths. Developers like how quickly they can deploy new apps and services to the market via Apple’s sales infrastructure. And with companies the size of IBM dedicated to building enterprise apps for iOS the story heard over and again is about expanding the installed base, then selling the add-ons.
Gee, sounds a lot like the old “razors lead to razor blade sales” strategy – business innovation circa 1966.
Overall, doesn’t this sound a lot like Microsoft? Bill Gates founded a company that revolutionized computing with low-cost software on low-cast hardware that did just about anything you would want. Windows made life easy. Microsoft gave users office automation, databases and all the basic work tools. And when the internet came along Microsoft connected everyone with Internet Explorer – for free! Microsoft created a platform with Windows upon which hordes of developers could build special applications for dedicated markets.
Once this market was created, and pretty much monopolized by Microsoft CEO Gates turned the reigns over to CEO Steve Ballmer. And Mr. Ballmer maximized these advantages. He invested constantly in developing updates to Windows and Office which would continue to insure Microsoft’s market share against emerging competitors like Unix and Linux. The money was so good that over a decade money was poured into gaming, even though that business lost more money than it made in revenue – but who cared? There were occasional investments in products like tablets, hand-helds and phones, but these were merely attractions around the main show. These products came and went and, again, nobody really cared.
Ballmer optimized the gains from Microsoft’s installed base. And a lot – a lot – of money was made doing this. nvestors appreciated the years of ongoing profits, dividends – and even occasional special dividends – as the money poured in. Microsoft was unstoppable in personal computing. The only thing that slowed Microsoft down was the market shift to mobile, which caused the PC market to collapse as unit sales have declined for six straight years (PC sales in 2016 barely managed levels of 2006). But, for a goodly while, it was a great ride!
Today all one hears about at Apple is growing the installed base. Maximizing sales of iPhones. And then selling everyone services. Oh yeah, the Apple Watch came out. Sort of flopped. Nobody really seemed to care much. Not nearly as much as they cared about 2 quarters of sales declines in iPhones. And whatever happened to AppleTV? ApplePay? iBeacons? Beats? Weren’t those supposed to be breakthrough innovations to create new markets? Oh well, nobody seems to much care about those things any longer. Attractions around the main event – iPhones!
So now analysts today aren’t put in the mode of evaluating breakthrough innovations and trying to guess the size of brand new, never before measured markets. That was hard. Now they can be far more predictable forecasting smartphone sales and services revenue, with simulations up and down. And that means they can focus on cash flow. After all, Apple makes more cash than it makes profit! Apple has a $246 billion cash hoard. Most people think Berkshire Hathaway, led by famed investor Warren Buffett, spent $6.6 billion on Apple stock in 2016 because Berkshire sees Apple as a cash generation machine – sort of like a railroad! And if those meetings between CEO Cook and President Trump can yield a tax change allowing repatriation at a low rate then all that cash could lead to a big one time dividend!
And, most likely, the stock will go up. Most likely, a lot. Because for at least a while Apple’s iPhone business is going to be pretty good. And the services business is going to grow. It will be a lot like Microsoft – at least until mobile changed the business. Or, maybe like Xerox giving away copiers to obtain toner sales – until desktop publishing and email cratered the need for copiers and large printers. Or, going all the way back into the 1950s and 60s, when Multigraphics and AB Dick practically gave away small printers to get the ink and plate sales – until xerography crushed that business. Of course you couldn’t go wrong investing in Sears for years, because they had the store locations, they had the brands (Kenmore, Craftsman, et.al.,) they had the credit card services – until Wal-Mart and Amazon changed that game.
You see, that’s the problem with all of these sort of “milk the base” businesses. As the focus shifts to grow the base and add-on sales the company loses sight of customer needs. Innovation declines, then evaporates as everything is poured into maximizing returns from the “core” business. Optimization leads to a focus on costs, and price reductions. Arrogance, based on market leadership, emerges and customer service starts to wane. Quality falters, but is not considered as important because sales are so large.
These changes take time, and the business looks really good as profits and cash flow continue, so it is easy to overlook these cultural and organizational changes, and their potential negative impact. Many applaud cost reductions – remember the glee with which analysts bragged about the cost savings when Dell moved its customer service to India some 20 years ago?
Today we’re hearing more stories about long-term Apple customers who aren’t as happy as they once were.
Genius bar experiences aren’t always great. In a telling AdAge column one long-time Apple user discusses how he had two iPhones fail, and Apple could not replace them leaving the customer with no phone for two weeks – demonstrating a lack of planning for product failures and a lack of concern for customer service. And the same issues were apparent when his corporate Macbook Pro failed. This same corporate customer bemoans design changes that have led to incompatible dongles and jacks, making interoperability problematic even within the Apple line.
Meanwhile, over the last four years Apple has spent lavishly on a new corporate headquarters befitting the country’s most valuable publicly traded company. And Apple leaders have been obsessive about making sure this building is built right! Which sounds well and good, except this was a company that once put customers – and unearthing their hidden needs, wants and wishes – first. Now, a lot of attention is looking inward. Looking at how they are spending all that money from milking the installed base. Putting some of the best managers on building the building – rather than creating new markets.
Who was that retailer that was so successful that it built what was, at the time, the world’s tallest building? Oh yeah, that was Sears.
Markets always shift. Change happens. Today it happens faster than ever in history. And nowhere does change happen faster than in technology and consumer electronics. CEO Cook is leading like CEO Ballmer. He is maximizing the value, and profitability, of the Apple’s core product – the iPhone. And analysts love it. It would be wise to disavow yourself of any thoughts that Apple will be the innovative market creating Jobs/Ives organization it once was.
How long will this be a winning strategy? Your answer to that should determine how long you would like to be an Apple investor. Because some day something new will come along.
It’s been over a decade since the Internet transformed print media.
Very quickly the web’s ability to rapidly disseminate news, and articles, made newspapers and magazines obsolete. Along with their demise went the ability for advertisers to reach customers via print. What was once an “easy buy” for the auto or home section of a paper, or for magazines targeting your audience, simply disappeared. Due to very clear measuring tools, unlike print, Internet ads were far cheaper and more appealing to advertisers – so that’s where at least some of the money went.
In 2012 Google surpassed all print media in generating ad revenue. Source Statista courtesy of NewspaperDeathWatch.com
While this trend was easy enough to predict, few expected the unanticipated consequences.
1. First was the trend to automated ad buying. Instead of targeting the message to groups, programmatic buying tools started targeting individuals based upon how they navigated the web. The result was a trolling of web users, and ad placements in all kinds of crazy locations.
Heaven help the poor soul who looks for a credenza without turning off cookies. The next week every site that person visits, whether it be a news site, a sports site, a hobby site – anywhere that is ad supported – will be ringed with ads for credenzas. That these ads in no way connect to the content is completely lost. Like a hawker who won’t stop chasing you down the street to buy his bad watches, the web surfer can’t avoid the onslaught of ads for a product he may well not even want.
2. Which led to the next unanticipated consequence, the rising trend of bad – and even fake – journalism.
Now anybody, without any credentials, could create their own web site and begin publishing anything they want. The need for accuracy is no longer as important as the willingness to do whatever is necessary to obtain eyeballs. Learning how to “go viral” with click-bait keywords and phrases became more critical than fact checking. Because ads are bought by programs, the advertiser is no longer linked to the content or the publisher, leaving the world awash in an ocean of statements – some accurate and some not. Thus, what were once ads that supported noteworthy journals like the New York Times now support activistpost.com.
3. The next big trend is the continuing rise of paid entertainment sites that are displacing broadcast and cable TV.
Netflix is now spending $6 billion per year on original content. According to SymphonyAM’s measurement of viewership, which includes streaming as well as time-shifted viewing, Netflix had the no. 1 most viewed show (Orange is the New Black) and three of the top four most viewed shows in 2016.
Increasingly, purchased streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, et.al.) are displacing broadcast and cable, making it harder for advertisers to reach their audience on TV. As Barry Diller, founder of Fox Broadcasting, said at the Consumer Electronics Show, people who can afford it will buy content – and most people will be able to afford it as prices keep dropping. Soon traditional advertisers will “be advertising to people who can’t afford your goods.”
4. And, lastly, there is the trend away from radio.
Radio historically had an audience of people who listened to their favorite programming at home or in their car. But according to BuzzAngle that too is changing quickly. Today the trend is to streaming audio programming, which jumped 82.6% in 2016, while downloading songs and albums dropped 15-24%. With Apple, Amazon and Google all entering the market, streaming audio is rapidly displacing real-time radio.
Declining free content will affect all consumers and advertisers.
Thus, the assault on advertisers which began with the demise of print continues. This will impact all consumers, as free content increasingly declines. Because of these trends, users will have a lot more options, but simultaneously they will have to be much more aware of the source of their content, and actively involved in selecting what they read, listen to and view. They can’t rely on the platforms (Facebook, etc.) to manage their content. It will require each person select their sources.
Meanwhile, consumer goods companies and anyone who depends on advertising will have to change their success formulas due to these trends. Built-in audiences – ready made targets – are no longer a given. Costs of traditional advertising will go up, while its effectiveness will go down. As the old platforms (print, TV, radio) die off these companies will be forced to lean much, much heavier on social media (Facebook, Snapchat, etc.) and sites like YouTube as the new platforms to push their product message to potential customers.
There will be big losers, and winners, due to these trends.
These market shifts will favor those who aggressively commit early to new communications approaches, and learn how to succeed. Those who dally too long in the old approach will lose awareness, and eventually market share. Lack of ad buying scale benefits, which once greatly favored the very large consumer goods companies (Kraft, P&G, Nestle, Coke, McDonalds) means it will be harder for large players to hold onto dominance. Meanwhile, the easy access and low cost of new platforms means more opportunities will exist for small market disrupters to emerge and quickly grow.
And these trends will impact the fortunes of media and tech companies for investors The decline in print, radio and TV will continue, hurting companies in all three media. When Gannet tried to buy Tronc the banks balked at the price, killing the deal, fearing that forecasted revenues would not materialize.
Just as print distributors have died off, cable’s role as a programming distributor will decline as customers opt for bandwidth without buying programming. Thus trends put the growth prospects of companies such as Comcast and DirecTV/AT&T at peril, as well as their valuations.
Privatized content will benefit Netflix, Amazon and other original content creators. While traditionalists question the wisdom of spending so much on original content, it is clearly the trend and attracts customers. And these trends will benefit streaming services that deliver paid content, like Apple, Amazon and Google. It will benefit social media networks (Facebook and Alphabet) who provide the new platforms for reaching audiences.
Media has changed dramatically from the business it was in 2000. And that change is accelerating. It will impact everyone, because we all are consumers, altering what we consume and how we consume it. And it will change the role, placement and form of advertising as the platforms shift dramatically. So the question becomes, is your business (and your portfolio) ready?
‘Tis the season of holiday giving. We hunt for just the right gift, for just the right person, to make sure they know we care about them. This act of matching a gift to the person has tremendous importance, because it demonstrates care from the giver about the recipient.
Once advertising was like that. Marketers built brands with loving care. They worked very hard to know the target for their brand (and product) and they carefully crafted every nuance of the brand – imagery, typography, colors, images, sounds – even spokespeople (famous or created) to project that brand properly for the intended customers. We’ve seen great brand images over time, from Tony the Tiger promoting cereal to start your day to Ronald McDonald bringing a family together.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Ad placement delivered the brand’s gift to the customer.
And, once upon a time, how that brand was placed in front of targeted customers was every bit as crafted as the brand itself. Marketers worked with ad agencies to make sure newspaper, magazine, billboard location, radio show or TV program matched the brand. The brand was considered linked not just to the medium, but to the message that medium projected. Want to sell a muscle car, you promoted it via media focused on sports, DIY projects, men’s health – a positive connection between the media’s message/content and the advertiser’s goal for the brand.
And marketers knew that if they put their brand with the right media content, in front of their targets, it would lead to brand identification, brand enhancement, and sales growth. The objective wasn’t how many people saw the ads, but putting the ad in front of the right people, associated with the right content, to build on the brand’s value, and make the products more appealing to target buyers. Placement led to sales.
Just like finding the right gift is important for the holidays, matching the gift to the recipient, finding the right ad placement was very important to the customer. It was an act of diligence on the part of the advertiser to demonstrate to target customers “hey, I know you. I get where you’re coming from. I connect with you.”
Then the internet changed everything.
In the old days marketers really didn’t know how many people connected with their ads post-placement. There were raw numbers on readers/listeners/viewers, but nothing specific. There was a lot of trust by the marketer that “owned” brand placed in working with the ad agencies to link the brand to the right media – the right content – so that brand would flourish and product sales would grow.
Yes, ads were measured for their appeal, how well they were remembered and audience coverage. But these metrics, and especially raw volume numbers, were each just one piece of how to craft the brand and deliver the message. It was reaching the right people that mattered, and that required people to make media decisions – and that required really knowing the content tied to the ad being placed.
Marketers clearly understood that customers knew the product paid for those ads to promote that content. Customers linked the brand and the content, and thus it was important to make sure they matched. The content had to be right for the ad to have its intended affect.
But in the internet age, all that caring about customers, branding and links to the right content began disappearing. Instead, ad decisions were dominated by metrics – “how many placements did my ad receive?” “how many people saw my ad?” “how many people clicked on my ad?” “how many page views does this web site generate?” “how many page views does this writer/blogger generate?” The brand was being lost – the customer was being lost – in identifying how many people saw the ad, and whether or not they clicked on it, and where they went after the ad was presented on the web page.
And, the worst of all, “Do we have the information to know who this internet surfer is, follow them, and deliver ads to them as they cross pages and web sites?” At this point, content no longer mattered. If some page viewer was known to be looking for a desk, ads for desks would be placed on page after page the reader (potential customer) visited — regardless the content!
Marketers allowed their brands to be disconnected from the content entirely – ouch.
In the era of programmatic ad buying, content no longer matters. Follow the target, hammer on them with ads, even if the brand is positioned first next to information on weather, and next on a site about buying inexpensive baby clothes, and next on a site about high end power tools.
The care and crafting of ad buying, which was crucial to brand building and demonstrating customers really mattered to those who created and crafted the products, and brand, was lost.
In 2016, we saw the ultimate in forgetting brand value while programmatically placing ads. “Fake news” emerged. And marketers started to see their ads next to those fake (often invented and totally false) stories, just like they would be placed next to legitimate information. The breakdown between content and brand was complete. In the unbridled pursuit of “eyeballs” brands were paying for the worst any media could offer – not journalism or legitimate content, but outright crap.
The election served to demonstrate this in an entirely new way. People went to websites, formerly considered “fringe,” such as Breitbart, to find out information on candidates and their supporters. And there would be ads. The ad was following the eyeballs, no longer the content. Family product ads, such as for cereal, were suddenly appearing next to content that was in no way associated with the marketer’s goal for that brand image.
And by being content independent, these programmatic ads were not just harming the brands – they supported bad journalism, and bad content.
“Click bait” became ever more important. With no people involved in ad buying, ads were no longer were tied to content so there was no “editorial” management of how the ad was placed. What those smart ad buyers once did, helping to build the brand, was lost. Now, any writer who could figure out how to use the right key words – and often outrageous content (of any kind) – was able to pull eyeballs. If s/he could pull eyeballs – regardless of the content – they pulled ads. And that pulled dollars.
Media brand value was dramatically lost – and journalism suffered.
In other words, you no longer needed the credibility of a brand like NBC, Wall Street Journal, ESPN, Forbes, etc. to obtain ads. Those old media brands worked hard to make edited content, reliable content, available to readers – and something a brand marketer could understand and use to build her customer base. But now all a publisher/producer needed was something that brought in eyeballs – and often the more outrageous, more salacious, more demeaning, more hostile, more ridiculous the content the more eyeballs were attracted (like watching a train wreck).
And the more this pulled ad money to non-journalistic, bad content, and away from legitimate content providers that focused on building their brand, the more it hurt journalism and marketing. What a decade ago seemed like a possible fear came true in 2016. Unharnessed media access by everyone was proven to lead to the growth of bad journalism as funds for good research, writing, editing and masthead curating was lost to those who demonstrated merely the ability to pull eyeballs.
Those who have benefited from this shift think programmatic ad buying is great. To them if people want to read from their site, look at their photos, cartoons and other images, or watch videos then these site owners claim there is no reason that advertisers should complain. “If people want this content, then why shouldn’t we be paid to create it. This is a monetized democracy of the media putting the customer in control.”
But that is simply not true. Customers link the brand message to the content on the screen. And there should be care taken to make sure that content and the brand message link. And that’s where programmatic ad buying is failing everyone.
Net/net, we need people involved in ad placement. Just as we care about the gifts we give at holidays, it takes a personal touch to make that selection work. It takes people to craft the delivery of ads.
Hopefully in 2017, the lessons of 2016 will become very clear, causing marketers and advertisers to rely far less on programmatic, and get people involved in ad placement once again. For the good of brands and for decent content.
(PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
McDonald’s has been trying for years to re-ignite growth. But, unfortunately for customers and investors alike, leadership keeps going about it the wrong way. Rather than building on new trends to create a new McDonald’s, they keep trying to defend extend the worn out old strategy with new tactics.
Recently McDonald’s leadership tested a new version of the Big Mac,first launched in 1967. They replaced the “special sauce” with Sriracha sauce in order to make the sandwich a bit spicier. They are now rolling it out to a full test market in central Ohio with 128 stores. If this goes well – a term not yet defined – the sandwich could roll out nationally.
This is a classic sustaining innovation. Take something that exists, make a minor change, and offer it as a new version. The hope is that current customers keep buying the original version, and the new version attracts new customers. Great idea, if it works. But most of the time it doesn’t.
Unfortunately, most people who buy a product like it the way it is. Slower Big Mac sales aren’t due to making bad sandwiches. They’re due to people changing their buying habits to new trends. Fifty years ago a Big Mac from McDonald’s was something people really wanted. Famously, in the 1970s a character on the TV series Good Times used to become very excited about going to eat his weekly Big Mac.
People who are still eating Big Macs know exactly what they want. And it’s the old Big Mac, not a new one. Thus the initial test results were “mixed” – with many customers registering disgust at the new product. Just like the failure of New Coke, a New Big Mac isn’t what customers are seeking.
After 50 years, times and trends have changed. Fewer people are going to McDonald’s, and fewer are eating Big Macs. Many new competitors have emerged, and people are eating at Panera, Panda Express, Zaxby’s, Five Guys and even beleaguered Chipotle. Customers are looking for a very different dining experience, and different food. While a version two of the Big Mac might have driven incremental sales in 1977, in 2017 the product has grown tired and out of step with too many people and there are too many alternative choices.
Similarly, McDonald’s CEO’s effort to revitalize the brand by adding ordering kiosks and table service in stores, in a new format labeled the “Experience of the Future,” will not make much difference. Due to the dramatic reconfiguration, only about 500 stores will be changed – roughly 3.5% of the 14,500 McDonald’s. It is an incremental effort to make a small change when competitors are offering substantially different products and experiences.
When a business, brand or product line is growing it is on a trend. Like McDonald’s was in the 1960s and 1970s, offering quality food, fast and at a consistent price nationwide at a time when customers could not count on those factors across independent cafes. At that time, offering new products – like a Big Mac – that are variations on the theme that is riding the trend is a good way to expand sales.
But over time trends change, and adding new features has less and less impact. These sustaining innovations, as Clayton Christensen of Harvard calls them, have “diminishing marginal returns.” That’s an academic’s fancy way of saying that you have to spend ever greater amounts to create the variations, but their benefits keep having less and less impact on growing, or even maintaining, sales. Yet, most leaders keep right on trying to defend & extend the old business by investing in these sustaining measures, even as returns keep falling.
Over time a re-invention gap is created between the customer and the company. Customers want something new and different, which would require the business re-invent itself. But the business keeps trying to tweak the old model. And thus the gap. The longer this goes on, the bigger the re-invention gap. Eventually customers give up, and the product, or company, disappears.
Think about portable hand held AM radios. If someone gave you the best one in the world you wouldn’t care. Same for a really good portable cassette tape player. Now you listen to your portable music on a phone. Companies like Zenith were destroyed, and Sony made far less profitable, as the market shifted from radios and cathode-ray televisions to more portable, smarter, better products.
Motorola, one of the radio pioneers, survived this decline by undertaking a “strategic pivot.” Motorola invested in cell phone technology and transformed itself into something entirely new and different – from a radio maker into a pioneer in mobile phones. (Of course leadership missed the transition to apps and smart phones, and now Motorola Solutions is a ghost of the former company.)
McDonald’s could have re-invented itself a decade ago when it owned Chipotle’s. Leadership could have stopped investing in McDonald’s and poured money into Chipotle’s, aiding the cannibalization of the old while simultaneously capturing a strong position on the new trend. But instead of pivoting, leadership sold Chipotle’s and used the money to defend & extend the already tiring McDonald’s brand.
Strategic pivots are hard. Just look at Netflix, which pivoted from sending videos in the mail to streaming, and is pivoting again into original content. But, they are a necessity if you want to keep growing. Because eventually all strategies become out of step with changing trends, and sustaining innovations fail to keep customers.
McDonald’s needs a very different strategy. It has hit a growth stall, and has a very low probability of ever growing consistently at even 2%. The company needs a lot more than sriracha sauce on a Big Mac if it is to spice up revenue and profit growth.