Where I’m Going Next: Unlocking Innovation for Modern Brands

Though the digital revolution really began in the early 90’s, we’re just beginning to get our arms around what’s possible for brands and marketers. Meanwhile, the future of brands, of brand building, of marketing is being invented, right now, every day.

For instance, as I write this post, the digital marketing headlines center around the founders of Snapchat turning down an acquisition offer from Facebook, holding out for a better offer.

It should be noted, they have no revenue.

Snapchat didn’t exist three years ago (and, if you are reading this in 2017, Snapchat may not exist anymore). Yet, some observers agree they may be worth more than  the rumored $3 billion dollar Facebook  offer.

Has the business world gone crazy, or is it truly possible to invent, design and grow disruptive, innovative businesses that fast?

For those of you not living in the digital space, the pace of change may seem disorienting. But trust me, it will never be slower than it is right now.

Unlocking Innovation: The Next Phase of the Digital Transformation

I’ve been involved in the digital business in one way or another since 1995 when I was teaching classes on “What is the Internet” or “Understanding the World Wide Web”. I’ve done a lot of the jobs required to bring web and mobile experiences to life, from coding and designing to advertising and promoting. I’ve lived through a couple boom and bust cycles.

I’ve seen Web 1.0, Web 2.0 and whatever Web 3.0 was supposed to be. But, based on my experiences, I believe we’re in the early stages of the most important cycle for most businesses: Accelerated innovation through new products and services.

In today’s landscape, smart business leaders see the massive opportunity for innovative products and services that weren’t possible even 5 years ago.  Bold, modern marketers are recognizing that there’s never been a better time to build brands through useful, helpful services and content.

So, they are looking for ways to reinvent, to unlock new ways to grow.

In almost every category, I’m seeing examples that should appeal to the soul of modern marketers who recognize growth can come by re-examining all aspects of their business in light of the digital transformation hitting them: their business model, their go-to-market strategy, their consumer communication model, the products, services and content they offer and their brand, overall. Just a few examples of bold innovation I’m seeing.

  • GoPro has built an incredible business and brand in a space that should have been owned by Sony, without much paid advertising (marketing model innovation)

  • RedBull has become one of the largest providers of action sports programming (media model innovation)

  • SpecialK has built and delivered a diet plan around their cereal brand (brand building innovation)

  • DollarShaveClub.com is working on disrupting the men’s grooming accessories business through price, brand and distribution (business model innovation)

Brands Need a Different Kind of Partner to Spark Innovation

To unlock real transformational growth and innovation, smart marketers need partners that aren’t satisfied merely to work on this year’s campaign materials. As a matter of fact, I’m seeing some of the most exciting ideas happening when companies work with smaller, more experimental firms at the front of the change.

Fortunately for marketing leaders, there is a growing number of great firms out there. The marketing service companies that support the brands (i.e. the ad agencies, PR shops, design shops, management consultancies) are going through their own, difficult transformations, too.

As a result, new kinds of firms are emerging, focused on dreaming up new businesses, inventing whole new products or services, or planning out alternative marketing models; Firms that are purpose-built, designed from the ground up to be agile, fast, data driven and iterative.

The agency disruption is leading to the kind of collaborators who help marketers answer that age old strategic question, “what business are you really in?” and then bring those new ideas to life, in market, to drive growth.

These new model, smaller firms are alternatives to legacy agencies which are trying to compete on strengths (scale, global network, heavy investments in “creative”) that aren’t as valuable anymore. And, in many cases, the operating models and cost structures of legacy firms make it almost impossible to move quickly and to work with the best collaborators available across the globe.

An Amazing Time to Build Brands and Businesses

Disruptive innovation is hitting just about every industry. New collaborators arising to help marketers win in a changing landscape. Has there ever been a better time to be in business?

So, marketers, we have a choice: are we going to wait and watch and react when it hits your category? Or are we going to drive the change. I don’t know about you, but I want to be a driver.

My Next Phase: GoKart Labs

I’ve recently left one of America’s great brand building companies (General Mills) to join a company not many know yet. GoKart Labs (gokartlabs.com) is a small, stealthy company that builds real businesses and drives remarkable innovation. We build our own businesses (Sophia, Kinly, a couple in the pipeline). We build them with our partners (BringMeThenews.com). And, we will use our business building chops to grow yours.

Your ad agency can’t do what GoKart does.

We’re built to invent new products and services, help you find and grow your customer base or help you generate whole new business models. We’re designed for market acceleration, not conference room creative conversations. Then, we’ll help you design, develop and deliver the digital experiences that build your brands. And, finally, our growth hackers can help you find customers through the truly agile marketing we use to grow our businesses.

Now, as I buckle up for this next phase — both mine and the web’s — I couldn’t be more excited. I’m excited to bring what I’ve learned working with some of the best marketers and brands in the world.

I’m excited to learn from the many entrepreneurs and business leaders in and around GoKart Labs. And finally, I’m excited to be part of a crew of collaborators inventing new businesses, products and innovations. I’ve got my foot on the gas and I’m ready to drive.

All Commerce is E-Commerce

“Retail has become a blur. And the blurring is 100 percent driven by technology,” says Tige Savage, a partner at AOL founder Steve Case’s investment company, Revolution, which is investing in new online retail startups. “Are you at the store? Or is the store at you? And then there’s mobile, the store is in your pocket. The game is to satisfy demand wherever and whenever it is.”

Good article from the MIT Technology Review on the pervasiveness of technology in commerce. Part of a well timed focus this month on the growth of multi-channel commerce.


Clients Take the Reins on Programmatic | Digiday

As more and more clients like Kimberly-Clark become more savvy about the ad tech world, they are demanding transparency about what, exactly, they’re paying their agencies for – and how their data is being used.

via Clients Take the Reins on Programmatic | Digiday.

In my experience, agencies and brands are learning at the same pace as each other, and often times, brands and internal digital teams know as much as the agency folks. Plus, the media landscape is so complex, that the smartest brands are working on how to get in *front* of all the change, and start driving their *own* change. If they do, there is very real, very large upside for companies to take their programmatic buying in-house. Financially, for sure. But the most strategic value will come from the data and insights they gain from direct oversight of their trading. Insights about the performance, but also about their brands, their consumers. And, brands will need this info to help them understand the industry evolution.

Smart agencies will stop stressing about lost media planning fees, embrace their future as media strategists and analysts, and figure out how to help brands bring stuff in house. There will still be plenty of work for agencies to do as brands bring it in house, including analysis, larger scale efforts, and media operations. And, in some cases, an experimental, innovation focused “media lab” of sorts.

Contently: Not Content Marketing, but Brand Publishing

Really like this write up from Contently’s Sam Slaughter (@samslaughter215) at Adweek. Focused on the distinction between content marketing and brand publishing. 

When brands make the decision to use content (and really, social media’s already made that decision for them), they need to forget about being marketers and worry about being publishers.

But this is harder than it should be for brands because of this: 

Like publishers, brands need to make sure that each piece of content—Facebook update, tweet, sponsored story, Pinterest board and microsite—is valuable to their customers, and maps back to a greater narrative.

Ads and ad messages aren’t all that valuable in the day to day life of anyone. And, most brands have no clue what a “greater narrative” means when they’re just focused on selling soap or widgets right now. 


Brands *Should* Be Publishers

With so much discussion about “content marketing“, brands are learning that they need to think and act like publishers if they want to thrive in social media. But, while brands may aspire to be like RedBull (the most well know example of Brand as publisher), there are still some real questions about whether most brands will actually be able to do it. My answer is a definitive “yes”, brands can do it. More to the point, i think the best brands *have* to adopt the mindset of publishers to win in a socially connected consumer landscape. But, brands will have to get over philosophical, business and operational barriers if they want to do what great publishers do.

At the most basic, great publishers do the following:

  • Make useful stuff: Publishers deliver useful – interesting, helpful, inspiring, entertaining – material to people who can use it. Whether it’s a magazine or a radio show, a TV network or a website, the exchange between publisher and end user has to be based on a certain level of utility
  • Build an Audience: Publishers build a reachable audience – consistent, identifiable, unique, engaged – over time around that material.

Seems pretty straightforward. Why would this be hard for brands? First, most brands today don’t have the basic service orientation. It’s just a philosophical disconnect. Brands are inherently interruptive and self-centered (“Buy me!”). They are all about using annoying TV ads and banners to deliver their own message in order to drive short term results for themselves. In order to make the transition, and build an audience that cares, brands will have to adopt “service first, message later” as a core philosophy.

Great publishers see their audience as a core asset that can be translated into revenue opportunities. An active, engaged audience that’s growing takes investment, time, and careful support. That long-term business perspective runs counter to the short term urgency most companies bring to their brand building. Brands typically see advertising media as a painful expense to minimize in the short term. To fully adopt a publisher mindset, brands will need to embrace a long-term business orientation, and see the investment in audience building as a modern way to create a valuable business asset.

Operationally, the vast majority of brands will struggle with the content production process. But, it’s going to be even more important for brands to develop a consistent and unique editorial lens. Great publishing ventures need great editors, someone who can discern what’s great for the audience and pushes the editorial agenda. Brands will struggle with any message that isn’t pushing their campaign message or product features. When faced with a decision about whether to invest scarce resources into an article that’s useful vs. one that delivers their campaign message, 99% of marketers will go with the one that “sells” more. To truly deliver on “brand as publisher”, brands will have to put their audience needs before their own.

Brands can overcome these challenges and the potential upside is significant for those willing to work at it.   But what happens to brands that don’t adapt? They won’t evolve their spending mix and will remain reliant on paid adverting too long. They won’t adapt their brand, and instead of connecting with people on a higher emotional or aspirational level, they’ll simply blast out their features and benefits, losing relevance :15 at a time. They’ll miss the chance to build assets, and keep throwing money at ads. While it may require brands to work against their long grooved instincts, those that commit will end up with a built in audience, content that drives interaction and, eventually, a valuable marketing asset.

Social Media is Going to be Everyone’s Job

Good overview of the changes happening in the social media job space. Key point is that, just like “digital” before it, social media is blending into just about everyone’s role. But, companies aren’t really ready for that (Surprise, surprise):

Whether everyone is adequately trained for that job, however, is another question. Just as it took years to fully onboard email, integrating social media into the workplace is frustrated by a skills gap.

But, the biggest transformation is still just beginning. And functional skills won’t be the problem. Businesses are going to have to remake their cultures. As more and more of the core functions of business take on social, realtime dimensions, businesses are having to become truly social business. That’s a culture problem. Companies are still in the mode of adding social as another tool to do what they’ve always done. But, real innovation comes when businesses realize they can solve problems in new ways and pursue completely transformational opportunities that come when brands work in new ways.

So, lets do away with the job title. Let’s make social media part of all of our roles. But, great leaders will have to both understand the practical/skill aspects AND have a deep curiosity about how the culture of their businesses can evolve quickly.

Fallon: What we Can Learn From Butch Vig & Rick Rubin

Great post from Chad Koehnen (Planner at Fallon) about "Smart" vs. inspiring. He comes down in favor of inspiring, not surprisingly. It's a great read, and especially helpful for brands trying to understand how to get the kind of creativity they need today. Good quote: 

Here’s a little secret that Planners would be advantaged to learn: Nobody (real people) truly cares about smart. That’s not to say it isn’t important, but it’s an input, not an output. Therefore, the only evaluation of smart should be through the work it inspires. People don’t care about what Producer Butch Vig told Nirvana during the making of Nevermind. People just care about how “Smells Like Teen Spirit” sounds like the perfect angsty, balls out, cymbal-crashing soundtrack to their life.

Whether it be Music Producing or Account Planning, smart is only as good as the interesting, hilarious, touching, persuasive, rocking, and beautiful product it inspires.

I also like this one (which i might put on a T-shirt): 

 Or more specifically, it’s a Planner’s job to fight on the side of people who love to consume amazing shit.

Modern Brand Builders: The Importance of Having a Distinct Voice (from Dick Costello, pre-Twitter)

This is an absolutely essential post for anyone trying to build a brand today. It's from Dick Costello, before he become the head of Twitter. It's not surprising that it comes from 2007 when social media was really taking off and brands and companies were trying to humanize themselves for the first time, but it's still as relevant today as then. People you are trying to connect with have plenty of choices, plenty of alternatives to choose from. The kind of experience you deliver really can make the difference. And, having a clear, unique, distinctive voice is key to that. 

It is a competitive advantage for you to have a unique voice in your market. Companies with unique personalities give themselves a leg up because people want to embrace other people, and we all dislike antiseptic and bland corporate communications.

I should also point out that when I say it’s important to have a unique voice, I don’t mean that you have to make sure people think your company is fun and cool. Your company voice can be serious or esoteric and still your customers will appreciate you for having a unique voice.

Note that you don't need to be "young", "modern", or "tech savvy". you just have to avoid coming off like a distant,  glossy behemoth. 

Bonus: I love that he namechecks Moosejaw (@MoosejawMadness) , one of the brands i cite the most frequently as doing a great job breaking through via a clear, distinct voice (in this case: Funny, sarcastic, energetic).

Huckberry is Refinery29 for Dudes & The Future of E-Commerce

If you're interested in seeing what the future of E-Commerce looks like, you can check out Huckberry for a pretty great example. It's Refinery29 for dudes. And, i love it.

They are playing well at the intersection of a couple key trends: 

  • Unique, new brands – If you look at the kinds of brands they are featuring, the brands are almost exclusively "new" to most of us. Many of the brands – like American Giant – seem to be riding the wave of "Made in America". Whether imported brands, or start up brands, Huckberry is merchandising their site with interesting options that are hide to find elsewhere, and especially in one place
  • Great Stories – People want to love their stuff they buy, and often the stories about the products are what seals the deal. It could be the founder's story, it could be product's long history, or it could be about the values that shape the culture of the company. When the products come along with a story, they're going to be more valuable. Just ask J. Peterman.
  • Membership-based pricing – Like Gilt Group, RueLaLa and The Clymb, Huckberry asks you to become a "member" before you can browse and buy. It's a marketing ploy, but it does set the right expectations for your experience. 

What's especially great about Huckberry, though, is how fully formed their brand is. And, it's delivered exceptionally well through their overall digital experience, but mainly through the voice that comes out in the copy. Primarily in the emails, but across the whole site, you definitely get a sense of the personality of the organization. And, it's a key part of the differentiation from other platforms. It's so fully formed and richly expressed, you actually care. Care enough to open the next email to see what they are presenting. Care enough to look for it in your inbox folders (when Google moves it to the promotions tab).

I think the sort of experience delivered by Huckberry is the future of a certain segment of commerce. Call it "content commerce" or "story sales"  or something different, but ultimately it comes down to buying stories vs. buying simple products. Or, it's story and eperience as the differentiator over price. In the end, Huckberry is doing something useful for me: Help me discover interesting brands and products i wouldn't have otherwise found, tell me their interesting stories so i know why i should care, and do it in an interesting and entertaining way.  


Ozy Starts / What Can Modern Marketers Learn?

I'm always excited when new publishing titles start, because it's a chance to see the vision and values and beliefs of the founding editors come to life in, almost, realtime.  And, over the last couple years, we've seen a couple really interesting examples.  XOJane, Quartz, or the Kernel, or even the ever-evolving Forbes.com are in different phases of their evolution, but their editorial "point of view" has been clear from the beginning. 

Modern Marketers, as they continue to evolve from a "mass marketing" mindset to a "audience building" mindset,  can learn a lot from successful publishing brands who have built great audiences over time. And, in this case, new publishing brands who are trying to connect with an audience for the first time. The first couple statements from a new publishing venture – their first articles, their first "letter from the Editor", their manifesto - form the foundation of their brand. And, it's a great chance to see how well the editor/publishing team know just who they are as a brand and where they want to go. 

Ozy Media is launching this week, and it will be interesting to see how their "voice"  evolves. Here's the vision, from Carlos Watson

At OZY, our goal is to bring you news and information in a completely different way. Instead of just giving you the same 25 stories everyone else has, we’re going to give you what you really want – the new and the next. Every day, OZY will deliver stories on new people, places, trends, ideas and opinions. And when we say “new,” we’re not just talking about what’s trending now. We’re not focused on three hours or three days ahead; we want to tell you about things months before you hear it elsewhere. 

We want to show you more of this bright, interesting, colorful world we share. And if we do that, then in the end you’ll not only see more, you’ll be more.

And, here's what i think is their version of the manifesto: 

We are the go-to daily news and culture site for the Change Generation, bringing you up to speed on what happened in the last 24 hours and vaulting you ahead by previewing new people, places, ideas and trends in bite-sized original articles that are intelligent, compelling and stylish. OZY is the place where you get a little smarter, a little sooner. Our mission is to help you see more, be more and do more

That's pretty nice. But, it would be great for them to start all this with a more clearly articulated foundation: 

  • Beliefs – What they believe in, and how those beliefs will guide their editorial coverage
  • Values – The basic human values that will guide their decision, and motivate their actions
  • A clear Purpose – A single, clear statement that lays out why the platform exists.

And, in this particular case, i think Ozy is onto something kind of important: the idea of the Change Generation. It would have been awesome for them to take a shot at articulating who the change generation is, why we should think as a "generation" vs. a cohort (and why that matters), and what the change generation really needs.

At this point, i wonder if they were focused on getting the platform up and running, and getting the first articles out the door instead of fully, clearly, convincingly defining their vision, their point of view, their reason for being. With so many alternatives, a new platform needs to convince the audience they are different, they are worth paying attention to, and worth watching or reading.

Modern Marketers are often in similiar situations, trying to convince people to pay attention and care about them. They're rushing to get their social media touchpoints established, their communities started. But, they often skip past the foundation that attracts an audience: Shared values, common beliefs, and a purpose that humans want to be part of. 

At this point, Ozy is interesting because it's new, but i wonder if, over the long haul, they'll be valuable because they've got a voice that matters in the conversation. Brands should be considering the same challenges.