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It is hard to ignore the increased frequency at which men can be seen with a beard of some form or style on their faces in recent years. Beards have become popular especially among young men towards or in their early twenties. The renewed fashion of growing beards is making troubles for 115+ years old Gillette, once an independent company and since 2005 a division and brand of consumer packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble (P&G). The difficulties for the famed brand of razors and blades caused by changes in shaving habits of male consumers have been further exacerbated by increased competition and the growing shift to e-commerce. Yet above and beyond, Gillette faces a key challenge to defend and sustain its brand equity, arising from its reputation and position of leadership for many years.

Indeed ‘beards’ are far from being uniform. Beards, and facial hair in general, can be thick or thin, with or without a moustache, covering the cheeks or leaving them clear (see for example the  top 15 beard styles described by Gillette). Often enough the beard is not much more than stubble kept growing for a few days. But beards should be more than a matter of avoiding a shave everyday. As said above, there are different shapes and styles of them, and to keep the beard in form and in good appearance, one has to cultivate and nurture his beard on a regular basis.

  • From the late 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century the moustache was the epicentre of facial hair for men. It was a fashionable sign of manhood, and there were some creative and artistic designs of them.

According to figures from 2013, it was estimated that 17% of American men grew a beard of some form in that year, up from 14% in 2009. Beards are particularly frequent among young US men age 18-24: 35% in 2013 compared with 31% in 2009 (Experian Marketing Services, 14 March 2014; the estimate of ‘bearded men’ is based on a definition of men not using any shaving products or men who use electric shavers or shaving cream (foam) fewer than two times per week [to be distinguished from watching men and counting those bearded]).

The problem of Gillette seems to be aggravated, however, by a reduced frequency at which men shave per week. It is increasingly popular to grow a 2-day, 3-day or 5-day beard. If to judge by the frequency of using shaving cream, US men used it 4.5 times per week in 2009 versus 4.3 times in 2013 (mean 3.5-3.6 among 18-24 years old). Therefore, this is not simply a question of whether an individual uses shaving products, particularly disposable razors and blades, but how much one uses them (and thereof pays to buy them). It should be noted that just 15% of young men age 18-24 in the US have had a thick beard (using no shaving products) in 2013 (2009 13%);  among those in the next age group of 25-34 years old this proportion was a minor 5%.

  • In other data (by Mintel) for 2015, 41% of men using shaving products in the US do not shave daily (50% of  18-24 years old, 51% among 45-54 years old). Nonetheless, among those who do not shave daily not all is lost, probably far from it.

Hence, there is a different way, more optimistic, to look at the situation. Many of the men who grow some form of a beard do have to continue to shave regularly enough. First, it can be noticed that many of the young men grow a rather thin and light beard. Second, many grow a beard on part of their faces (e.g., around the mouth) and hence have to keep shaving the remaining areas where facial hair grows. Therefore, instead of looking at how men do not shave or shave less frequently, one should look at the frequency they do shave, when and how. Additionally, men who grow thin and partial beards can be encouraged and advised on nurturing their beards, keeping them in line and aesthetically appearing. In fact, Gillette demonstrates in videos on its country-websites how to do so with their manual shaving products, a step in the right direction (note: similar instructive videos are available from other sources as well). Nevertheless, more emphasis may have to be given to trimmers for cutting off more dense facial hair to offer customers a more complete solution.

Shaving manually with razor blades is a ritual that demands time, patience and care. It involves three main stages and requires the use of supplementary products (e.g., pre-shave lotion, shaving cream or foam). Part of the market of manual razors and blades has been captured years ago, especially in developed countries, by electric shavers for the greater simplicity of shaving with them and also for being safer. In the US, the ratio between shaving methods stands (2013) at about 3:2 — 6 users of disposable razors and blades to 4 users of electric shavers (Experian). Younger men (18-24) tend somewhat more to prefer manual shaving over electric shavers. If it gives any consolation, only 27% of American users of electric shavers apply the machine daily (i.e., 7+ times per week). In addition, users of electric shavers seem to have lowered their frequency of shaving (mean uses per week): 4 in 2009 versus 3.7 in 2013 (18-24 years old use them less frequently to start with, 2.5-2.6). A possible lesson from those revealed figures might be that men in developed countries should not be expected nowadays to shave daily, perhaps only half as frequently, using either manual or electric devices.

In some ways, as suggested below, the management of Gillette can draw back users of electric shavers to using the brand’s razors and blades. First, users of electric shavers may be convinced of a greater accuracy in which Gillette razor blades can be used to keep, for instance, a beard within its intended  border lines. Second, while men may not find the time and patience to shave manually during the week, they may see the benefits of doing so, instead of using the electric shaver, on weekends and holidays when they have more time to groom themselves. It may be possible to widen an already small overlap that appears to exist between the use of electric shavers and the use of disposable razors and blades.

  • P&G also markets the Braun brand of electric shavers (foil covering a straight-line blade). Philips, a leader in electric shavers (round rotary heads), is offering models with or without a pop-up trimmer on back of the handset shavers; a trimmer is also available as a separate device, as may fit the need to separately treat more dense hair. (Royal Philips has been re-aligning its business in the past few years, but it seems to have found a place for its shaving products in the personal care category for men as an extension to health-care technologies).

Gillette looks as an autonomous division of P&G, almost independent from it. It may get even more freedom than other brands in the house of brands of P&G. Indeed, Gillette has been an independent strong brand for many years and is still capable of being a driver of consumer choice without the help of the corporate name of P&G. Moreover, Gillette has been and remains the endorser of product brands such as Sensor (since 1990), Mach 3 (since 1998) and Fusion (since 2006; Fusion has two premium sub-brands ProGlide and ProShield). The three product brands may be strong enough each to share a driving power equally with the endorsing Gillette name. Some consumers may know that Gillette is owned by P&G and they may value the solid backing it can give Gillette, but it seems the P&G name has no more than a role of shadow endorser [1]. The root (US) website of Gillette and its various country-websites make no reference to P&G in their content; the only mention given is a title at the top left corner saying “Part of the P&G family”. This approach thus helps in instilling the notion that Gillette acts as a stand-alone brand (or brand tree).

The cost of replacing the disposable razors (‘handles’) and blades of Gillette has become a key issue for the brand in the last ten years. The ‘heads’ that contain the blades (e.g., Sensor with 2 blades, Mach has 3 blades and Fusion has 5) seem to cause the greater burden for users, especially as they have to be replaced more frequently than the razor on which the ‘head’ is mounted. Gillette has embarked on a major effort in the US to lower their cost and bring back customers — the US website includes a ‘Pricing’ page introducing a special Lower Prices offer on razors and blades (these are recommended retail prices that Gillette is careful to stress it cannot guarantee for every retailer). A similar ‘Pricing’ page appears on the Canadian website but without details of prices, while no such page appears on websites of other countries (e.g., Australia, UK, Germany, Argentina, South Africa). Additionally, Gillette publishes on its American website a ‘Letter to Consumers’ from its employees as part of its effort: showing how they listen to consumers, and expressing gratitude to those who have already returned after trying razors and blades of competitors (attributed to Gillette’s quality advantage and their lower price offering). It begs one to wonder why this effort is limited to North America.

A threat to Gillette has come primarily from online retailers such as Dollar Shave Club (now owned by Unilever) and uprising Harry’s. At first, men reacted to increasing costs of blades by growing beards and shaving less frequently, but then also by turning to online suppliers. Dollar Shave Club was estimated to have an online market share in 2016 of 52.4% on razors and blades, and Harry’s obtaining 9.4%. However, Gillette has also entered into selling its razors and blades online and launched a customer Club in 2014; in 2016 its share online was estimated at 21.2% (CNBC, 7 August 2016, estimate figures provided by Slice [Ratuken] Intelligence). An increasing interest in subscription plans was further noted by Mintel (5 Nov. 2015) — such plans offer razors and blades at lower prices with the advantage of providing also supplementary shaving products; all can be ordered together in convenient packages. Gillette had to adapt to the new conditions, including the shift in consumer behaviour and new market rules (i.e., e-tailing). The subscription scheme of Gillette Club is available mostly in Western countries of North America and Western Europe (notes: in some countries it is labeled ‘On Demand’, and in the scheme described online, orders are set to be fulfilled via retail stores).

  • Gillette was acquired by P&G in 2005 for $57Bn. In May 2018 the Gillette brand was ranked #32 on the List of Most Valued Brands of Forbes, valued at $17.1Bn. Market share of razors in the US has been sliding down during six consecutive years, from 70% in 2010 to 54% in 2016. Since 2012 the sales of Gillette have declined from a peak of $8.3bn to $6.8bn in 2016, and dropped another 3% in 2017 to $6.6Bn. There is an anticipation now that the Club would help to halt the decline in 2018.

The slogan of Gillette, sustained for several decades already, is “The Best a Man Can Get”. Gillette has been thriving for excellence in the area of shaving as a cornerstone of its brand equity. It has won its recognition as a leader based on high perceived quality of its shaving products, especially its razors and blades (as a ‘power brand’, it achieved a central category benefit [‘the closest shave’], and has been continually improving [2a]). An association that resonates with consumers is significant for brand-building; it has to be meaningful and relevant to them. David Aaker and Erich Joachimsthaler noted in their book ‘Brand Leadership’ that Gillette was among the brands “that have high customer resonance because their customer value proposition is highly relevant” [2b]. This could be the prime challenge of Gillette as a brand for the coming years: The high quality of its products is undeniable, but can it uphold its relevance to consumers?

 


In its struggle to bring customers back, a national advertising campaign to persuade men to shave again has missed its target. An Israeli advertising agency (ACW) created a campaign titled ‘The Dad Test’ featuring a ruler for measuring how much a beard or stubble hurts babies by scratching the baby’s face (2017). The campaign stirred protest and anger for being insensitive and aiming low (Mako-Keshet TV, 7 June 2017 [Hebrew]). First, the ‘problem’ the ad caught onto is hardly new. Second, the campaign took an offensive stand by raising a conflict, alienating customers, and thus was shooting in the wrong direction. (ACW is affiliated with international advertising agency Grey; this campaign does not seem to have appeared outside Israel).

The US-based advertising agency Grey New-York launched in the past three years ad campaigns, for American Father’s Day, that seem to adopt a more positive and constructive approach to father and son relations: (1) In 2016, ‘Go Ask Dad’ instead of turning to the Internet (The Drum, 19 June 2016); (2) In 2017, ‘Handle with Care’ featuring a son helping his elderly father shave (AdWeek, 22 June 2017); (3) In 2018, ‘Your Best Never Comes Easy’, meant to redefine or re-establish the brand’s slogan (AdAge, 11 September 2018). A leading theme in these ad campaigns is connecting fathers and sons with a razor product of Gillette as the pivotal mediator. They may also be noted for enhancing a functional benefit of Gillette with an emotional benefit.


 

An approach that may help Gillette paving its way forward is looking through the lens of The Theory of Jobs to Be Done developed by Clayton Christensen [3]. In order to attract customers and keep them, a company has to understand the goal or task the consumers wish to accomplish and focus on how its designated product will help them in making progress towards achieving their goal (i.e., ‘getting the job done’). Furthermore, jobs are context-dependent, that is, in different circumstances or conditions the consumer may need the same product to do differing jobs. In the case of shaving razors and blades, we may posit ‘jobs’ such as: (1) What type of look men wish to display with their beards — does the consumer want to foster a ‘neat and elegant’ look or is he interested in appearing ‘rough and tough’? — from here a company may derive the extent to which razors have to provide a close shave and accuracy; (2) The main concern of male users may be that shaving will be easy and convenient, and without taking too much time (say 10 minutes). An additional goal for shaving may require that it is more economically affordable. Taking these options into consideration, it may prompt Gillette to examine whether consumers can easily distinguish between the different razors it offers and trace which model of razor and blades is most appropriate for the job one wants to accomplish.

The challenges Gillette has to resolve may be divided into two levels. In the short to medium term the brand may be more engaged in tackling the contemporary fashionable trends in growing beards and thereby the shifts in shaving behaviour of male consumers. There is little point in speculating how long this period may last — the brand just has go through it and adjust its product offerings and marketing. In the longer term, more crucially, Gillette will have to be concerned with sustaining the relevance of the brand (e.g., fit for a job) to men, younger and older, and ensuring that associations they hold of the brand remain valid and meaningful. On that depends the future of Gillette.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

[1] Based on the model of brand architecture in: Brand Leadership; David A. Aaker and Erich Joachimsthaler, 2009/2000; London, UK: Pocket Books (paperback edition, originally published in 2000 by Simon & Schuster UK)

[2] Ibid. 1: [a] (p. 67) and [b]  (p. 89)

[3] Competing Against Luck; Clayton M. Christensen with Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, & David A. Duncan, 2016; Harper Business (HarperCollins Publishers)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Marketing and consumer researchers have long been interested in revealing and describing differences in the behaviour of consumers that arise from differences in culture between societies, nations and communities. Ignoring such differences can lead companies to making embarrassing and costly mistakes in international marketing. Culture sets ideas, values, norms, symbols and customs that influence and shape the thoughts, beliefs and actions of the people adhering to it; in particular, responses to marketing-oriented stimuli — products, advertising messages, websites, stores etc. — can vary specifically due to cross-cultural differences.

Kastanakis and Voyer (2014 [1]) propose that investigation of the effects of cross-cultural differences on consumer behaviour should look deeper into pre-behavioural processes, namely perception and cognition. Culture conditions perception and cognition, thus affecting how consumers perceive and understand stimuli, which consequently drive behaviour. Consumers develop perceptions and thoughts from the input of stimuli they attend to, but top-down processes set by pre-defined mind-sets, goals and beliefs (e.g., guided by culture) may inversely shape how consumers perceive, interpret and think of the information received from their environment. The researchers review ways in which culture influences perception and cognition in different functions or contexts. Similar to the greater part of research on cross-cultural differences, Kastanakis and Voyer concentrate on differences between Western cultures (individualist, espousing independence) and Eastern [Asian] cultures (collectivist, espousing interdependence).

Western cultures encourage people to see themselves by themselves, that is, developing an independent construal of one’s self-image; Eastern cultures on the other hand encourage people to see themselves as part of a group, that is, developing an interdependent self-construal. Thus, Easterners are predisposed to construe their self-image based on their relations with and similarities to others in a group of affiliation, compared with Westerners who view themselves as individuals independent from others, emphasising their unique traits. The tendency of Easterners to perceive and judge an individual person relative to surrounding others is demonstrated in this example cited by Kastanakis and Voyer: American and Japanese research participants were asked to judge the emotion of a central figure based on his or her facial expression when surrounded by other person figures showing the same or different expressions — “The findings indicate that the surrounding people’s emotions influenced Japanese perceptions but not Americans’ perceptions of the central person’s feelings.” [Based on research by Masuda, Ellsworth and others, 2008.] Contextual information (e.g., feelings of others) seems to matter for judgements in the East more than in the West.

In another implication of the independent-interdependent cleavage, whereas Westerners are mainly focused on achieving their personal goals, Easterners are looking more to help advance goals of the group they belong to, catering to others’ needs or wishes.  The authors suggest as a possible consequence that “Westerners perhaps tend to join groups to serve their own needs, whereas in collectivist societies, people serve the groups to which they belong”. This difference in approach may affect, for example, the way users of social media in North America and Europe participate and interact in these networks, differently from users in Asia (e.g., South Korea, Japan, China). It has been repeatedly argued that social media networks have not helped people in the West to socialise any better, perhaps even to the opposite, and that users engaged in social media may still feel in solitary. A similar discussion may concern also the use of digital platforms in the rising ‘sharing economy’ (e.g., Airbnb, Uber, LendingClub). Gaining true benefits from socialising and sharing platforms is based on collaboration, contributing to others or at least reciprocating helpful actions by others, not quite in line with values and norms taught by the individualist culture of the West (e.g., promoting competition and personal achievement).

The contrast between independence and interdependence further finds an expression in a respective distinction between thinking styles: analytic vs. holistic. Analytic thinking, associated with an individualist culture, is more focused on single objects and the attributes of each; holistic thinking, associated with a collectivist culture, is more attentive to the context or field in which any object is found. Thereby, Westerners following an analytic perspective would be more inclined to observe and judge objects in isolation, whereas Easterners (Asians) following a holistic perspective tend to consider the relations between objects observed and make judgements based on the context of a whole scene. This distinction can have important implications for the perception and evaluation of visual scenes. For instance, a Westerner would focus on a particular exhibit or display of products in a store (e.g., a dressed mannequin) while an Easterner would see the same display against the background of other in-store displays and interior decorations of the store. In front of a shelf display, an Easterner viewing it holistically would be more attentive to the collection of products on display compared with an ‘analytic’ Westerner focusing on each product at a time (note: such a difference may also be applicable to a screen display of products on a webpage).

The difference in perspective is applicable also in viewing photographs of scenes, not just when being physically present on-site. Easterners more accustomed to a holistic view would be more capable at capturing the gist of a photographed scene as it relies on perceiving relations between multiple figures and objects in the scene. Westerners following an analytic perspective, on the other hand, would be more capable at noticing the attributes of particular objects. It should be noted, therefore, that while people in the collectivist East may have the advantage of identifying relations better, people in the individualist West may have the advantage of observing object details better (i.e., could be judging single objects with greater scrutiny). It furthermore appears that people match their aesthetic preferences to their culture-orientated perspective. Kastanakis and Voyer give an example wherein Eastern portrait paintings or photographs “tend to diminish both the size and the salience of the central figure and emphasize the field”.  Such differences in perspective and thinking style should be considered, as the authors advise, in the aesthetic design of advertising materials and other communications as well as in retail sites.

Stronger relational processing has relevance to attributes, and moreover to a perceived relationship between price and physical product attributes used as intrinsic cues for quality. Lalwani and Shavitt (2013) provided ground support for the association between modes of self-construal — independent vs. interdependent — and reliance on a perceived price-quality relationship. The way people look upon their own self-concept vis-à-vis their relation to others radiates to their perceptions and processing of relations between price and quality attributes. Importantly, however, they show that the linkage is mediated by the distinction between analytic and holistic thinking styles. Interdependent (collectivist-oriented) consumers are more capable at processing price-quality relations, where holistic thinking in particular positively predicts greater reliance on such relationships [2].

In addition to visual processing and aesthetics, culture is known to affect perception, processing and preferences of smell and sound. Consumers may be biased to better recognise smells familiar to them in their culture or to better comprehend culturally familiar melodies. The bias occurs, as said by Kastanakis and Voyer, during recall and recognition before the information even enters the attitude formation, judgement, and decision making processes. Consider thereby the mixtures of styles and forms one would find in a country that absorbs immigrants originating from cultures different from each other or from the culture incumbent in the receiving country, for example in music and food. As people borrow from the traditions of communities of other cultural origins and adopt also from those typical locally, they get exposed to and experience mixtures of music melodies or food flavours. Yet, even with years passing certain things do not change — consumers may continue to feel more secure and comfortable with the familiar music genres and food styles they were raised on at home, associated with a given culture.

  • Kastankis and Voyer note a lack in cross-cultural research on taste perceptions; that is unfortunate because food is such a significant domain, but the smell of food may still have a cultural impact on consumers’ reactions.

Furthermore, the language one speaks can determine the perspective, individualist or collectivist, one applies. Immigrants, for instance, may change how they present themselves depending on the language they use: that of their origin or the one adopted in their current country of residence. The language carries the values and norms of a culture it is associated with, such as how people perceive themselves. For example, bi-cultural Chinese-born people refer to their own internal traits and attributes to describe themselves in English but describe themselves in relation to others when using Chinese. Kastanakis and Voyer argue that language is not emphasised enough as an aspect of culture: “language triggers a culture-bound representation of the self”.


Idiocentrism and Allocentrism are views held by people at the individual level in parallel to the individualist and collectivist cultural views of societies, respectively. This reference to individual-level culturally oriented views becomes particularly prominent when the personal view does not match the societal-level view dominant in one’s country of residence: for example, when people of Asian origin living in the United States, a country with an individualist culture, personally maintain an allocentric view.

Dutta-Bergman and Wells (2003) found some interesting differences in values held and lifestyles practised by idiocentrics and allocentrics living in the American individualist culture. For example, idiocentrics are likely to be more satisfied with their financial situation and optimistic than allocentrics; idiocentrics are also more disposed to be workaholic, yet are more innovative. Allocentrics are more likely to be health conscious; additionally, they are more inclined to invest in food preparation and other chores at home and to engage in group socialising than idiocentrics [3]. (Note: Idiocentrism and Allocentrism are approached as individual-level dispositions adopted by people; they are not necessarily contingent on any immigration status or country-of-origin.)


 

The differences between individualist and collectivist cultures may influence human cognition in several more ways explained by Kastanakis and Voyer. Key areas involve self- versus others-related cognitions, self-esteem, and information processing. Briefly mentioning some noteworthy implications: (1) People in Western cultures have a stronger tendency to make dispositional attributions for behaviour (e.g., to one’s personal traits or competencies) and discard situational factors, as opposed to Easterners; (2) Causal reasoning in Eastern cultures tends to give greater consideration to interactions between personal (dispositional) factors and situational or contextual factors than in Western cultures; (3) In Western cultures people will prefer to classify products based on typical functional or physical attributes of categories (i.e., rule-based classification) whereas in Eastern cultures people will rely more on family resemblance and relationships between products (i.e., relational classification); (4) In persuasion, Westerners (e.g., Americans) prefer to take side in conflicts while Easterners (e.g., Chinese) are persuaded more by compromise solutions and are more ready to deal with contradictions.

Readers are reminded additionally of the differences in processing of visual information already described earlier (i.e., between the Western object-focused analytic approach and the context-orientated holistic approach in the East). These differences may be well-connected with the approach consumers take in judging and classifying products visually displayed (e.g., physically in-store, virtually in print or screen images).

Three final comments to conclude: First, as always we have to be careful with generalisations made such as between ‘Western culture’ and ‘Eastern culture’. There are differences in elements of culture between countries associated more closely with either the individualist or collectivist streams of culture. There is furthermore variation among communities and sectors within countries, and some tendencies may also be considered as individual-level differences (e.g., holistic vs. analytic thinking). Second, there is need in the West to explore and deepen the understanding of other streams of culture (e.g., African, Middle Eastern, South American). Third, Kastankis and Voyer address changes in perspective and behaviour of people in Asian nations caused by their growing exposure to the Western individualist cultural orientation. However, a more salient phenomenon prevalent in recent decades seems to be the immigration of people originating from non-Western cultures coming to live in countries of the West. Especially in Europe, the extent of exchange in ideas, values and customs between people with Western-orientation (‘incumbents’) and non-Western cultural orientations (e.g., from Africa and the Middle East) should have great impact on the balance between cultures on the continent (as well as in the UK), and not least the kind of consumer culture that will prevail in future.

International marketers must keep fully aware of and account for the differences between Western individualist orientation and Eastern collectivist orientation, and more so their multiple facets of manifestation in perception and cognition. Particularly important is paying attention to the differing thinking styles (i.e., analytic vs. holistic thinking) for their possible implications in processing and responding, for example, to persuasive attempts in advertising in online and offline channels, store design and visual merchandising. Extending marketing plans or initiatives across seas and borders, without making consideration for these potential differences, may significantly diminish the effectiveness of the actions taken in new destination markets to the extent of proving utterly precarious.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References:

[1] The Effect of Culture on Perception and Cognition: A Conceptual Framework; Minas N. Kastanakis and Benjamin G. Voyer, 2014; Journal of Business Research, 67 (4), pp. 425-433. (Accepted version is available at eprints.lse.ac.uk/50048/ on LSE Research Online website).

[2] You Get What You Pay For? Self-Construal Influences Price-Quality Judgments; Ashok K. Lalwani and Sharon Shavitt, 2013; Journal of Consumer Research, 40 (August), pp. 255-267 (DOI: 10.1086/670034).

[3] The Values and Lifestyles of Idiocentrics and Allocentrics in an Individualist Culture: A Descriptive Approach; Mohan J. Dutta-Bergman and William D. Wells, 2002; Journal of Consumer Psychology, 12 (3), pp. 231-242.

 

 

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Revelations about the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica affair last month (March 2018) invoked a heated public discussion about data privacy and users’ control over their personal information in social media networks, particularly in the domain of Facebook. The central allegation in this affair is that personal data in social media was misused for the winning political presidential campaign of Donald Trump. It offers ‘juicy’ material for all those interested in American politics. But the importance of the affair goes much beyond that, because impact of the concerns it has raised radiates to the daily lives of millions of users-consumers socially active via the social media platform of Facebook; it could touch potentially a multitude of commercial marketing contexts (i.e., products and services) in addition to political marketing.

Having a user account as member of the social media network of Facebook is pay free, a boon hard to resist. Facebook surpassed in Q2 of 2017 the mark of two billion active monthly users, double a former record of one billion reached five years earlier (Statista). No monetary price requirement is explicitly submitted to users. Yet, users are subject to alternative prices, embedded in the activity on Facebook, implicit and less noticeable as a cost to bear.

Some users may realise that advertisements they receive and see is the ‘price’ they have to tolerate for not having to pay ‘in cash’ for socialising on Facebook. It is less of a burden if the content is informative and relevant to the user. What users are much less likely to realise is how personally related data (e.g., profile, posts and photos, other activity) is used to produce personally targeted advertising, and possibly in creating other forms of direct offerings or persuasive appeals to take action (e.g., a user receives an invitation from a brand, based on a post of his or her friend, about a product purchased or  photographed). The recent affair led to exposing — in news reports and a testimony of CEO Mark Zuckerberg before Congress — not only the direct involvement of Facebook in advertising on its platform but furthermore how permissive it has been in allowing third-party apps to ‘borrow’ users’ information from Facebook.

According to reports on this affair, Psychologist Aleksandr Kogan developed with colleagues, as part of academic research, a model to deduce personality traits from behaviour of users on Facebook. Aside from his position at Cambridge University, Kogan started a company named Global Science Research (GSR) to advance commercial and political applications of the model. In 2013 he launched an app in Facebook, ‘this-is-your-digital-life’, in which Facebook users would answer a self-administered questionnaire on personality traits and some personal background. In addition, the GSR app prompted respondents to give consent to pull personal and behavioural data related to them from Facebook. Furthermore, at that time the app could get access to limited information on friends of respondents — a capability Facebook removed at least since 2015 (The Guardian [1], BBC News: Technology, 17 March 2018).

Cambridge Analytica (CA) contracted with GSR to use its model and data it collected. The app was able, according to initial estimates, to harvest data on as many as 50 million Facebook users; by April 2018 the estimate was updated by Facebook to reach 87 millions. It is unclear how many of these users were involved in the project of Trump’s campaign because CA was specifically interested for this project in eligible voters in the US; it is said that CA applied the model with data in other projects (e.g., pro-Brexit in the UK), and GSR made its own commercial applications with the app and model.

In simple terms, as can be learned from a more technical article in The Guardian [2], the model is constructed around three linkages:

(1) Personality traits (collected with the app) —> data on user behaviour in Facebook platform, mainly ‘likes’ given by each user (possibly additional background information was collected via the app and from the users’ profiles);

(2) Personality traits —> behaviour in the target area of interest — in the case of Trump’s campaign, past voting behaviour (CA associated geographical data on users with statistics from the US electoral registry).

Since model calibration was based on data from a subset of users who responded to the personality questionnaire, the final stage of prediction applied a linkage:

(3) Data on Facebook user behaviour ( —> predicted personality ) —>  predicted voting intention or inclination (applied to the greater dataset of Facebook users-voters)

The Guardian [2] suggests that ‘just’ 32,000 American users responded to the personality-political questionnaire for Trump’s campaign (while at least two million users from 11 states were initially cross-referenced with voting behaviour). The BBC gives an estimate of as many as 265,000 users who responded to the questionnaire in the app, which corresponds to the larger pool of 87 million users-friends whose data was harvested.

A key advantage credited to the model is that it requires only data on ‘likes’ by users and does not have to use other detailed data from posts, personal messages, status updates, photos etc. (The Guardian [2]). However, the modelling concept raises some critical questions: (1) How many repeated ‘likes’ of a particular theme are required to infer a personality trait? (i.e., it should account for a stable pattern of behaviour in response to a theme or condition in different situations or contexts); (2) ‘Liking’ is frequently spurious and casual — ‘likes’ do not necessarily reflect thought-out agreement or strong identification with content or another person or group (e.g., ‘liking’ content on a page may not imply it personally applies to the user who likes it); (3) Since the app was allowed to collect only limited information on a user’s ‘friends’, how much of it could be truly relevant and sufficient for inferring the personality traits? On the other hand, for whatever traits that could be deduced, data analyst and whistleblower Christopher Wylie, who brought the affair out to the public, suggested that the project for Trump had picked-up on various sensitivities and weaknesses (‘demons’ in his words). Personalised messages were respectively devised to persuade or lure voters-users likely to favour Trump to vote for him. This is probably not the way users would want sensitive and private information about them to be utilised.

  • Consider users in need for help who follow and ‘like’ content of pages of support groups for bereaved families (e.g., of soldiers killed in service), combatting illnesses, or facing other types of hardship (e.g., economic or social distress): making use of such behaviour for commercial or political gain would be unethical and disrespectful.

Although the app of GSR may have properly received the consent of users to draw information about them from Facebook, it is argued that deception was committed on three counts: (a) The consent was awarded for academic use of data — users were not giving consent to participate in a political or commercial advertising campaign; (b) Data on associated ‘friends’, according to Facebook, has been allowed at the time only for the purpose of learning how to improve users’ experiences on the platform; and (c) GSR was not permitted at any time to sell and transfer such data to third-party partners. We are in the midst of a ‘blame game’ among Facebook, GSR and CA on the transfer of data between the parties and how it has been used in practice (e.g., to what extent the model of Kogan was actually used in the Trump’s campaign). It is a magnificent mess, but this is not the space to delve into its small details. The greater question is what lessons will be learned and what corrections will be made following the revelations.

Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, gave testimony at the US Congress in two sessions: a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees (10 April 2018) and before the House of Representatives Commerce and Energy Committee (11 April 2018). [Zuckerberg declined a call to appear in person before a parliamentary committee of the British House of Commons.] Key issues about the use of personal data on Facebook are reviewed henceforth in light of the opening statements and replies given by Zuckerberg to explain the policy and conduct of the company.

Most pointedly, Facebook is charged that despite receiving reports concerning GSR’s app and CA’s use of data in 2015, it failed to ensure in time that personal data in the hands of CA is deleted from their repositories and that users are warned about the infringement (before the 2016 US elections), and that it took at least two years for the social media company to confront GSR and CA more decisively. Zuckerberg answered in his defence that Cambridge Analytica had told them “they were not using the data and deleted it, we considered it a closed case”; he immediately added: “In retrospect, that was clearly a mistake. We shouldn’t have taken their word for it”. This line of defence is acceptable when coming from an individual person acting privately. But Zuckerberg is not in that position: he is the head of a network of two billion users. Despite his candid admission of a mistake, this conduct is not becoming a company the size and influence of Facebook.

At the start of both hearing sessions Zuckerberg voluntarily and clearly took personal responsibility and apologized for mistakes made by Facebook while committing to take measures (some already done) to avoid such mistakes from being repeated. A very significant realization made by Zuckerberg in the House is him conceding: “We didn’t take a broad view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake” — it goes right to the heart of the problem in the approach of Facebook to personal data of its users-members. Privacy of personal data may not seem to be worth money to the company (i.e., vis-à-vis revenue coming from business clients or partners) but the whole network business apparatus of the company depends on its user base. Zuckerberg committed that Facebook under his leadership will never give priority to advertisers and developers over the protection of personal information of users. He will surely be followed on these words.

Zuckerberg argued that the advertising model of Facebook is misunderstood: “We do not sell data to advertisers”. According to his explanation, advertisers are asked to describe to Facebook the target groups they want to reach, Facebook traces them and then does the placement of advertising items. It is less clear who composes and designs the advertising items, which also needs to be based on knowledge of the target consumers-users. However, there seems to be even greater ambiguity and confusion in distinguishing between use of personal data in advertising by Facebook itself and access and use of such data by third-party apps hosted on Facebook, as well as distinguishing between types of data about users (e.g., profile, content posted, response to others’ content) that may be used for marketing actions.

Zuckerberg noted that the ideal of Facebook is to offer people around the world free access to the social network, which means it has to feature targeted advertising. He suggested in Senate there will always be a pay-free version of Facebook, yet refrained from saying when if ever there will be a paid advertising-clear version. It remained unclear from his testimony what information is exchanged with advertisers and how. Zuckerberg insisted that users have full control over their own information and how it is being used. He added that Facebook will not pass personal information to advertisers or other business partners, to avoid obvious breach of trust, but it will continue to use such information to the benefit of advertisers because that is how its business model works (NYTimes,com, 10 April 2018). It should be noted that whereas users can choose who is allowed to see information like posts and photos they upload for display, that does not seem to cover other types of information about their activity on the platform (e.g., ‘likes’, ‘shares’, ‘follow’ and ‘friend’ relations) and how it is used behind the scenes.

Many users would probably want to continue to benefit from being exempt of paying a monetary membership fee, but they can still be entitled to have some control over what adverts they value and which they reject. The smart systems used for targeted advertising could be less intelligent than they purport to be. Hence more feedback from users may help to assign them well-selected adverts that are of real interest, relevance and use to them, and thereof increase efficiency for advertisers.

At the same time, while Facebook may not sell information directly, the greater problem appears to be with the information it allows apps of third-party developers to collect about users without their awareness (or rather their attention). In a late wake-up call at the Senate, Zuckerberg said that the company is reviewing app owners who obtain a large amount of user data or use it improperly, and will act against them. Following Zuckerberg’s effort to go into details of the terms of service and to explain how advertising and apps work on Facebook, and especially how they differ, Issie Lapowsky reflects in the ‘Wired’: “As the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows, the public seems never to have realized just how much information they gave up to Facebook”. Zuckerberg emphasised that an app can get access to raw user data from Facebook only by permission, yet this standard, according to Lapowsky, is “potentially revelatory for most Facebook users” (“If Congress Doesn’t Understand Facebook, What Hope Do Its Users Have”, Wired, 10 April 2018).

There can be great importance to how an app asks for permission or consent of users to pull their personal data from Facebook, how clear and explicit it is presented so that users understand what they agree to. The new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of the European Union, coming into effect within a month (May 2018), is specific on this matter: it requires explicit ‘opt-in’ consent for sensitive data and unambiguous consent for other data types. The request must be clear and intelligible, in plain language, separated from other matters, and include a statement of the purpose of data processing attached to consent. It is yet to be seen how well this ideal standard is implemented, and extended beyond the EU. Users are of course advised to read carefully such requests for permission to use their data in whatever platform or app they encounter them before they proceed. However, even if no information is concealed from users, they may not be adequately attentive to comprehend the request correctly. Consumers engaged in shopping often attend to only some prices, remember them inaccurately, and rely on a more general ‘feeling’ about the acceptable price range or its distribution. If applying the data of users for personalised marketing is a form of price expected from them to pay, a company taking this route should approach the data fairly just as with setting monetary prices, regardless of how well its customers are aware of the price.

  • The GDPR specifies personal data related to an individual to be protected if “that can be used to directly or indirectly identify the person”. This leaves room for interpretation of what types of data about a Facebook user are ‘personal’. If data is used and even transferred at an aggregate level of segments there is little risk of identifying individuals, but for personally targeted advertising or marketing one needs data at the individual level.

Zuckerberg agreed that some form of regulation over social media will be “inevitable ” but conditioned that “We need to be careful about the regulation we put in place” (Fortune.com, 11 April 2018). Democrat House Representative Gene Green posed a question about the GDPR which “gives EU citizens the right to opt out of the processing of their personal data for marketing purposes”. When Zuckerberg was asked “Will the same right be available to Facebook users in the United States?”, he replied “Let me follow-up with you on that” (The Guardian, 13 April 2018).

The willingness of Mark Zuckerberg to take responsibility for mistakes and apologise for them is commendable. It is regrettable, nevertheless, that Facebook under his leadership has not acted a few years earlier to correct those mistakes in its approach and conduct. Facebook should be ready to act in time on its responsibility to protect its users from harmful use of data personally related to them. It can be optimistic and trusting yet realistic and vigilant. Facebook will need to care more for the rights and interests of its users as it does for its other stakeholders in order to gain the continued trust of all.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

 

 

 

 

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When the fashion house Maskit originally flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, no one probably thought about it as a brand; actually, not many back then thought about ‘brands’ in general, at least not in Israel of those years. Yet if we look at Maskit retrospectively according to the standards of brands known today, it would be acknowledged as a name brand in fashion. The contemporary fashion house of Maskit, revived after a long recess of two decades, has adopted not only the name but also the genuine styling ideation and design creativity of the former fashion house, thus deserving the ‘license’ to exist again. Maskit of our days has already been planned to be a luxury brand based on current knowledge in marketing and management.

Maskit was unlikely to be regarded as a brand in the 1950s-1960s for two conspicuous reasons: First, brands and their functions in modern marketing came to recognition some thirty years later; Second, Israel had a heavy-laden socialist economy with little competitiveness and a just nascent consumer culture (evolving through the 1960s). Furthermore, Maskit was not run in its prime years as a business enterprise: it started in 1954 as a government agency, turned a decade later (1964) into a governmental company. Only in the 1970s has the government loosened its hold on the company and gradually handed it over to private hands. However, that move has more than anything led to the decline and demise of the former Maskit in 1994.

Maskit is very much the story of the people who built it, then and now. The fashion house was founded in 1954 by Ruth Dayan almost incidentally, but with a great spirit for initiative. She was actually asked by government officials to help in identifying and creating employment opportunities in agriculture for new Jewish immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa. However, Dayan noticed that women from North African countries had a special talent and skills in weaving, sewing and embroidery; she also identified that men from Yemen excelled in jewellery. From there the idea of a fashion house employing immigrants started to take form. Since Dayan was not a fashion designer herself, she teamed-up with Fini Leitersdorf, nominated as the house chief designer. Together they developed a unique and genuine concept for fashion design that is at the same time multi-cultural and Israeli-native. Albeit the unusual circumstances of her enterprise, Ruth Dayan was by our current understanding an early woman entrepreneur in Israel of that period. The privatised company did not manage to continue in the footsteps of Dayan and Leitersdorf following their retirement from the fashion house in the late 1970s. Dayan who just celebrated in mid-March this year (2018) her 101st birthday also belongs nonetheless to the present of Maskit as she has helped in creating the newly born fashion house.

  • ‘Maskit’ can have multiple meanings, such as ‘image’ and ‘figure’, but the most appropriate meaning of this old Hebrew word in relation to what the fashion house does would be ‘ornament’.

Sharon Tal, a fashion designer, re-founded Maskit together with her husband Nir Tal in 2014, following more than two years of preparation, research and planning. Sharon Tal is the fashion house chief designer whereas Nir Tal (CEO) is in charge of the business side, specialising in entrepreneurship. Sharon Tal is a graduate in fashion design from Shenkar College of Engineering, Design & Art in Israel. She has subsequently worked in internship for Lanvin in Paris and for Alexander McQueen in London, where she acquired experience in international fashion design. At McQueen in particular she has learned and later advanced to specialise in embroidery, which would prove especially relevant and important for her professional and business venture of re-launching Maskit. On her return to Israel in 2010 she developed interest in starting a fashion house, and with the help of her husband Nir they discovered that the ideals or goals she has been aspiring for in a fashion house had existed in Maskit of Dayan and Leitersdorf.

Sharon Tal met with Ruth Dayan to talk about her interest in reviving Maskit, and it seems that they connected quite quickly — their first meeting extended into several hours, and they continued to work closely together on the initiative thereafter. It appears that shared thinking, the commitment of Sharon Tal to respect and maintain the original vision of Maskit, and the relevance of Tal’s specialisation as well as international exposure for continuing the heritage of Maskit have helped to convince Dayan that Tal was the right person to revive the fashion house. Ruth Dayan has given her blessing to the Tal couple, and has joined them in guidance during the research and planning process. Indeed the success of Maksit to re-establish itself depends greatly on reviving the heritage of Maskit, which Sharon Tal seems to fully recognise and appreciate, as she also respects the personal legacy of Ruth Dayan.

Maskit has made different types of garments in the days of Leitersdorf and Dayan. The concept that was special in many of them was mounting quality fabrics with motives of different ethnic cultures in embroidery.  They combined modern styles of the times with design traditions of embroidery embellishments “made by immigrants, as well as by Druze, Bedouin, Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian women” [E1; also see Maskit.com: About]. They used for decoration articles like buttons (e.g., made from river stones and shells), some were initially brought by immigrants from their countries of birth. Maskit also produced jewellery, pillow covers, and other home artifacts. Silver and gold for jewellery were also used in decorating garments. The Hungarian-born Leitefsdorf created the integration of Western (European) practices, materials, and design styles known to her with ethnic styles of different communities she came familiar with in Israel. It was a unique way of adopting cross-cultural ethnic fashion styles and designs, fabrics and colours, and fitting them to the Israeli habitat (nature, climate, and contemporary culture), hence making their clothing and other products ‘Israeli native’.

  • Ruth Dayan provided employment to the immigrants and hence has given them an opportunity to assimilate in the country, as well as helping them to preserve their traditions. It should be noted, however, that immigrants fleeing from Arab countries were at great disadvantage with limited choices compared with more veteran immigrants, mostly from European countries, who formed the dominant classes in the young state. Dayan benefitted from belonging to the latter (‘elite’) classes and was close also to ruling political circles (married at the time to General and later Defence Minister Moshe Dayan), which further helped in obtaining funding.

Sharon Tal has the will and intention to proceed along the same guiding lines of design and craftsmanship set by Dayan and Leitersdorf. But the aim of the renewed Maskit is not to relive the past; instead, the Tals strive to fit the concepts and practices of former Maskit to contemporary styles and tastes of our days. Their priority is to keep the fashion house being Israeli-native, representing its culture and nature, but that also means expressing the multiple original ethnic cultures that make up the Israeli society. Their emphasis also appears to be on handwork production and authenticity in everything they do. These implied ‘values’ could be key to achieving high quality, uniqueness and luxury positioning. Authenticity is seen as a basis for differentiation of the fashion brand; it is also approached as a way of establishing luxury in the sense that authenticity has become hard to find in many areas, and in fashionable clothing in particular. Maskit may be authentic in the fabrics and other materials they use, the methods they apply, and the personal and attentive treatment and service they would provide to their customers (including personally customised designs).

Here are some aspects in which Sharon Tal works to continue the heritage of Maskit. The fashion house uses, for instance, soft fabrics as in the past (including silk, linen as well as leather). Weaving in-house is no longer feasible as in the past so quality fabrics are imported (e.g., from the same suppliers as those Lanvin and McQueen work with). Yet Tal still sees hope that it will be possible to acquire quality fabrics made locally, and perhaps produce at Maskit, in the future [H1]. Among the creations of Leitersdorf, one that has given Maskit greater fame is the desert coat (or cloak) — Sharon Tal designed a new ‘desert collection‘ that is “re-interpreted for today’s woman and her lifestyle”. One of the differences in the desert coat of today from the previous is in its being made in linen rather than wool [E1]. Embroidery designed and prepared in-house remains an identifying signature of Maskit. However, the renewed Maskit is ready to give more credit to artisans working with the fashion house, unlike in the past.

Sharon and Nir Tal are clear about their high ambitions. They want Maskit to be an international leading luxury fashion brand. It is meant to compete on a world stage against international fashion super-brands and challenge renowned fashion retail chains. They do not see their competition against fashion designers in Israel since they look forward to see more Israeli designers succeed and the whole fashion industry in the country developing (H2). That may sound a little co-descending but it can also be interpreted as saying that they hope Maskit will be able to pull the fashion industry in Israel up with them, as Maskit has done before in its earlier life. Accordingly, while they aspire to reach overseas, they intend to extend their efforts to global markets only after establishing Maskit in Israel [E1], and wish to be able to return Maskit into being an international fashion house operating from Tel-Aviv [E2], apparently keeping this home base as their anchor.

Maskit led by Dayan has already reached overseas, mainly to the United States. Since 1956 the fashion house presented in fashion exhibitions in New-York and other American cities. Their designs sold at department stores of Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and Saks Fifth Avenue, and they featured in leading magazines like Vogue. Sharon and Nir Tal expect to take the renewed Maskit in the same direction, and their emphasis at least at start also is on the US. Targets are shifting with time, however: many female customers turn to fashion chains to buy their casual and less costly clothing, then invest in more special dressing, higher quality and enduring, from name designers or specialty boutiques — the latter is where Sharon Tal seems to be aiming. As a luxury brand, Maskit would also target women who buy primarily from famed designers [H2]. In addition, Maskit of the past attracted in Israel tourists visiting the country and their relatives (i.e., mostly Jewish, American, and more wealthy). Yet, Israeli customers also used to buy gifts from Maskit, mostly when they wanted to bring or send them to their relatives abroad to leave a good impression on them. This should stay valid today as then. Maskit may also be able to tap a growing desire in Israel to return to its roots (‘authentic Israeli’) or to connect generations of customers wearing Maskit then and now.

The prices of Maskit to end customers are in the mid- to high-range, not for every occasion.  Their blouse shirts or dresses can be even expensive relatively for their categories. Evening dresses or gowns may cost, for instance, from just below 2,000 shekels ($570, €465) up to a few tens of thousands shekels (e.g., a dress with handmade embroidery in a unique technique was sold for 25,000 shekels or more than $7,000)[H2]. The price of a bridal dress may cost (selling only) in the range of 7,500 to 25,000 shekels (~$2,000-7,000)[H3]. Bridal dresses and customised dresses are the more expensive on offer. A blouse could cost, for example, 900 shekels (leather-trimmed tunic blouse — ~$260, €185)[E1]. The items of Maskit, according to Nir Tal, are made to appeal to women who are “pretty sophisticated, and appreciate the art of this clothing” [E1]. The prices are clearly set to support perceived high quality of garments, and in particular the investments in craftsmanship and dedicated handwork.

  • The flagship shop and studio of Maskit are located in the American-German Colony in the old city of Yaffo adjacent to Tel-Aviv. The place is designed to resemble an atelier of many years in business, and includes museum-like displays next to selling areas (also see photos in H3].

From the business perspective, the Tals approached the launching of Maskit as when creating a start-up, guided primarily by Nir Tal. They wanted the revival of Maskit to be special and different, following the model of revival of brands like Burberry and Lanvin [E1]; it had to reflect the significant achievements of Maskit as a leading fashion house in the country in past years [H2]. It meant that greater effort and resources would have to be invested in the initiative, as in a start-up. The Tal couple gained major funding from key Israeli industrialist Stef Wertheimer, together with his invaluable business wisdom. Launching Maskit as a start-up sounds reasonable in order to recruit the energy needed and concentrate financial and organisational resources in launching the business. However, soon enough comes the time that the fashion house is established and has to realign itself to run for the long-term. There are good indications Maskit could be near that time, if they have not passed it already, and it does not require that they should be established off-shore first. For the long-running fashion house, sustained creativity and innovation are important as much as persistence and discipline. Maskit would be wise not to push itself too far too fast, so as not to burn itself like a start-up.

  • Note: Start-ups in hi-tech, particularly in Israel, do not have too good a reputation in holding for long, hence it would not be wise to use them as a model if the fashion house desires to exist in the long haul and does not plan an ‘exit’.

The brand of Maskit in fashion was not properly valued nor appreciated by the establishment in Israel more than forty years ago (Ruth Dayan noted jokingly in interviews that she lives on a monthly pension of 5,000 shekels as a former worker of the Labour Ministry). But Dayan together with Leitersdorf have demonstrated that a successful brand can be created even without having their minds set to it. Sharon and Nir Tal now have the opportunity to show how high Maskit can reach, and to develop and strengthen its brand, with the much greater marketing and management knowledge and best practices they can now employ. Reborn Maskit is positioned as a luxury brand for women with fine taste in fashion and appeal to nostalgia. The brand’s distinction remains dependent on their commitment to an Israeli-native identity with original creative design in high quality, and keeping their base in Israel even as an international brand.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

References in Hebrew:

[H1] Interview with Ruth Dayan & Sharon Tal at Maskit Studio, Xnet, 18 October 2015 (Xnet is an online ‘magazine’ section of Ynet news website, fashion section)

[H2] The New Life of Maskit, Calcalist (economics and business newspaper), 13 December 2017

[H3] New home for Maskit fashion house, Xnet, 28 June 2016

References in English:

[E1] “A Ready-to-Wear Fashion House in Israel’s Ethnic Past“, Jessica Steinberg, Times of Israel, 26 May 2014

[E2] “How the Israeli Fashion Brand Maskit Delivers Authentic Luxury“, Joseph DeAcetis, Forbes’ Opinions, 16 May 2017

 

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Ordinarily, Great Britain is not the first country to come to mind when thinking of chocolate. The names of Switzerland and Belgium are more likely to come up first, and then perhaps some other European countries (e.g., France, Italy, Germany, Austria). However, the British upmarket chocolatier Hotel Chocolat may deeply change our perception of Britain in association with chocolate; that is, following of course consumers’ pleasurable associations with the brand Hotel Chocolat. The brand name identifies both the company and its products (i.e., it is a ‘branded house’ of chocolate). Moreover, the company is a manufacturer as well as a retailer, offline and online, of chocolate products of multiple sorts, all under an encompassing brand, Hotel Chocolat.

Britain has been known for chocolate from companies like Cadbury and Thornton. But their products did not really succeed in raising an equivalent alternative that challenges the quality of chocolate from the better known ‘chocolate nations’. Cadbury in particular is most probably the main source for perceptions of British chocolate generated by consumers; in some of its products Cadbury blurs the distinction between true chocolate and chocolate snacks or confectionary. In 2010 the American company Kraft Foods took over Cadbury in an unfriendly maneuver; yet Kraft had a problem in swallowing the business of the acquired British company and just a year later split all of its confectionary arm including Cadbury to a new spin-off company called Mondelez International. Thornton’s already set a standard of higher quality chocolate delicacies in forms like bars and pralines. It also developed a chain of chocolate delicacy and gift shops. However, the enterprise expansion eventually ran into trouble and in 2015 the brand was acquired by the Italian giant Ferrero (well-known for ‘Ferrero Rocher’, also owner of Nutella).

Hotel Chocolat seems to be different, not merely for its positioning as an upmarket brand but in virtue of the fine feel and taste of its chocolate products — one immediately knows it is different when tasting one of the brand’s chocolate products. Drinking their hot chocolate with cocoa-flavoured cream makes a fitting complement to the pleasure of eating the solid chocolate delicacies. The experience of visiting a boutique shop of Hotel Chocolat (e.g., in Covent Garden in London, in the basement) also is an important contributor to conquering committed chocolate lovers.

Appetising Selection of Chocolates at Hotel Chocolat

Tempting chocolates displayed in cave basement of Hotel Chocolat’s Covent Garden shop

 

Hotel Chocolat was co-founded by Angus Thirlwell, CEO of the company, and Peter Harris (Development Director). In an earlier stage of their chocolate business, the co-founders established a company named ‘Express Choc’ as an online retailer of chocolates in 1993 (no doubt an early venture in e-commerce). They opened their first physical shop in the north of London in 2004 after changing the business name — this event practically marks the initiation of the brand Hotel Chocolat.

Over the years the brand has evolved and broadened its concept and it actually extends beyond products, shops and online store (retailing) — it also includes a Tasting Club (pre-launched 1998), chocolate workshops  (School of Chocolate), café-bars, a restaurant in London, and a hotel with restaurant in the Caribbean Islands. The company is proud of being a grower of cocoa for its products, a unique status for either a chocolate manufacturer or a retailer. The co-founders acquired a cocoa plantation in the Caribbean island Saint Lucia (2006), an initiative that brought Thirlwell back to his childhood in that part of the world, an origin of cocoa. In the estate of the plantation they opened their hotel (‘Boucan’) and a restaurant (2011). Their restaurant in London, established a couple of years later (2013) to bring West Indian tastes to the UK combined with modern British cuisine (e.g., ‘Slow Cooked Cacao Glazed Lamb Shank’), bears the name of the plantation and the year it was created (‘Rabot 1745’).

In an interview to BBC News, Thirlwell explained the reasoning behind the name — at start there seemed to be no logical relation to hotels. As for the choice of ‘Hotel’, Thirlwell replied: “It was aspirational. I was trying to come up with something that expressed the power that chocolate has to lift you out of your current mood and take you to a better place“, like going on vacation where one would stay at a hotel. As said above, seven years later and Thirlwell materialised the symbolic idea of Hotel into physical reality. Regarding the French wording ‘Chocolat’, he said that “everybody agreed ‘chocolat’ sounded better than chocolate”, which is hard to argue with, and added that the sound of the word almost suggests the sound of how chocolate melts in the mouth (he used the Latin term ‘onomatopoeia’) (BBC News: Business, 27 October 2014).

As reflected from his interview to the BBC, Thirlwell is a devout chocolatier, completely enthusiastic about chocolate. This impression is also supported in a personal page about Angus Thirlwell on the website of Hotel Chocolat. He continues to taste products every day and approves every recipe the company produces. A guiding principle that appears highly important to him is using more cocoa in chocolate products and less sugar. It is said that people started to crave cocoa long before anyone added a grain of sugar. This principle was practised, for example, in a product called ‘Supermilk’ that contains 65% cocoa, emphasises the ‘smooth creaminess of milk’, and includes less sugar than a dark chocolate — a feel of milk chocolate that is nearly a dark chocolate. In ‘Our Story’ webpage, Hotel Chocolat laments the overemphasis on sweetness in British chocolate: “Today, sugar is 20 times cheaper than cocoa, and a typical bar of milk chocolate contains more than twice as much sugar as cocoa”. Conversely, the mantra of Hotel Chocolat is explicitly: ‘More Cocoa, Less Sugar’.

A notion of this motto is felt very present indeed in a number of chocolate products of Delicious Orange Tangs by Hotel ChocolatHotel Chocolat, and it is probably at the root of the magic of their chocolate, and their business success. Just for instance, take their chocolate shells filled with Salted Caramel Cream, or Orange Tangs (orange-filled chocolate sticks) that are truly special and delicious (based on the author’s experience). It is all about the pleasure of eating genuine and fine-flavoured chocolate.

Formally, according to the website of Hotel Chocolat, the company operates 93 shops as well as cafés and restaurants. The Telegraph (24 January 2018) tells us that in the weeks running to Christmas 2017 and New Year of 2018 Hotel Chocolat opened ten new shops, bringing their total number to 100 across the UK. The store locator on the website (provided with an interactive map) suggests, however, that the company may have an even larger number of establishments in the UK — 153 locations are designated as ’boutique’ (shops). There are specifically 26 locations of café-bars, and the restaurant in London. It should be noted that café-bars are mostly (or always) integrated with shops, and Rabot 1745 is a complex including the restaurant, shop and café-bar. The brand is also represented in concessions (51 in total). The conflicting numbers are confusing and make it hard to determine the true current number of outlets of the company (could be a result of duplication in the counts of location types in ‘Our Locations’, apparently mainly due to concessions counted as boutique shops). Hotel Chocolat also has two stores in Copenhagen, Denmark, and several outlets in Ireland (seem to function mostly as concessions).


  • The revenue of Hotel Chocolat Group in the financial year 07/2016-06/2017 amounted to £105.24 million, an increase of 15.5% year-on-year; the net income in that period was £8.76m, an impressive rise of 114.6% year-on-year.
  • Hotel Chocolat Group was incorporated in 2013 and is listed on the London Stock Exchange since 2014 (the founders exchanged a third of their holdings for cash, receiving each about £20m, while in total raising £55m).
  • In the past six months the share price shifted between 240p and 380p, standing in late January ’18 at 333p; market capitalization: £375.5m.
Source:  FT.com, (Market Data)
Sales received a lift of 15% during the 13 weeks to 31 December 2017, attributed mostly to a special package in advance of Christmas (a gin ‘advent calendar’ package), a 100% cocoa collection, and the introduction of no-sugar milky chocolate range. Hotel Chocolat makes 40% of its annual sales in the run-up to Christmas and New Year (The Telegraph, 24 Jan. ’18).

A clear, well-stated and meaningful vision must have helped Hotel Chocolat considerably in its evolution and expansion. It stands on three values people in the company believe in: (1) Originality — not playing by the rules, rather doing things differently, and being creative and innovative. (2) Authenticity — growing cocoa, making and retailing chocolate, being true to cocoa and using natural ingredients (not letting sugar dull the flavour of cocoa itself and not mask the nuances from other ingredients, in line with the mantra cited above), and developing their own recipes in-house at the factory in Cambridgeshire (award-winning). (3) Ethics — committing to a deep sense of fairness that extends to farmers, customers and future generations (i.e., not spoiling the environment with waste in all stages of production).

The description of these three values or principles seems elaborate and specific enough to offer very clear guidelines for all managers and employees in the company to go by. They are accompanied by two business or marketing goals set by Thirlwell: excite the senses with chocolate and making it widely available. The two goals help to add focus to the mission of the brand: the first seems to pertain primarily to the products, the second underlies the network of retailing through physical shops and an online store. Other activities of Hotel Chocolat (e.g., hotel,  restaurants and café-bars, Tasting Club, School of Chocolate) contribute in enhancing the brand: deliver its message across and strengthen closer relationships with customers.

The business revolves around the brand ‘Hotel Chocolat’ and its development as it is their face and voice to the world. That is how customers and other stakeholders recognize everything they do. The more prestigious image of the brand is expressed through their products and packaging, primarily with their premium collections (‘tables’ — e.g., 86 pieces £65, 179 pieces £100). Pricing is also part of supporting the image, though Hotel Chocolat tries not to be excessive (e.g., one can find small-medium packages and boxes for prices in a range of £5-25). The concept of Café bars is gaining weight in aim to come closer to consumers — creating a venue where they can relax and enjoy a good chocolate drink with something light to eat (e.g., brownies) from Hotel Chocolat. The company may tap on a desire of Britons for high-quality chocolate, having a better own experience with chocolates from countries like Switzerland and Belgium. The founders protect the brand from dilution by avoiding, for example, displaying their products on shelves in supermarkets for sale (but their products are sold through concession in departments stores of John Lewis which fits better their brand image). The brand is taken care of meticulously by the founders to maintain an image they worked hard to instill: “a necessity of life, albeit a luxurious one” (Kate Burgess, opinion column, FT.com, 13 March 2016).

The brand of Hotel Chocolat has built its strength in quality of products and the expanse of its brick-and-mortar shops in addition to online retailing, supported by further activities or services. But attention must be paid to challenges ahead. First, how to balance resources correctly between keeping the quality of products and the expansion of the retail network — not falling to the trap of sacrificing the pleasure from the chocolates to their increased availability in the retail chain. Second, how to manage wisely and responsibly reaching out to other countries. In the interview to the BBC News (2014), Thirlwell concluded: “If you are specialist you have got to be absolutely specialist. There is a lot of competition and we want to be in the driving seat.” Consumers who appreciate and love genuine chocolate would surely hope that Hotel Chocolat succeeds in its mission so they can continue to enjoy their delicacies, and be excited.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

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Transparency; reliability; trust: These key terms are rehearsed and highlighted many times in textbooks and business books, academic and trade articles about managing customer relationships. Holding up to them is based, for example, on being honest, truthful and fair when making product or service offers to customers and in any other dealings between a company and its customers. However, those concepts that are good in managerial and marketing theory are too often lost when it comes to practice.

In addition, experts, technology consultants and other advocates of digital marketing are praising the capacity gained by companies to know so much about the behaviour and personal characteristics of their customers. One of the great benefits of this customer knowledge is in enabling companies to construct offers that will closely fit the needs, preferences and consumption or usage habits of their customers. Again, a gap emerges between what companies are supposedly capable to do with digital technologies available to them, including information and tools, and what they actually do. More accurately,  oftentimes companies are not doing enough in utilising those technologies to the intended purpose of creating better fitting offerings and messages.

The present post is based on a true story of a troubling journey to acquire an iPhone from a mobile telecom service provider (it will be called here ‘WM’). But this post is not just about the case of a particular company. Similar forms of problematic conduct are likely to be encountered at competing mobile service providers as well as other telecom service companies such as TV (cable and satellite), telephony (voice and data) and Internet providers. Moreover, at least some of these types of flawed conduct will be familiar to the reader from interaction with service providers in other domains (e.g., banking and finance, credit cards, insurance, healthcare, travel and tourism). In essence, this conduct refers most typically to providers of contractual services, and particularly when services extend over months and years.

An upgrade of a customer’s mobile phone is often accompanied by a modification of his or her service package; it is justified especially when a large generation gap exists between the previous and the new model. Two-part and three-part tariff schemes have been common in mobile communication for many years, splitting the price of service between fixed and variable components. Usage possibilities and patterns have changed, however, with smartphones, pertaining in particular to the online flow of data and the use of mobile applications (‘apps’). Service packages more frequently combine bundles of included (‘pre-paid’) units — minutes (voice), messages (SMS), and data MBs/GBs (mobile websites and apps); the weight of variable cost (i.e., based on price per unit), drops vis-à-vis a fixed cost component.

Subscribed customers are encouraged to pre-commit to ever larger bundles or unit quotas, some of them could constantly be left unspent each month. At least in one category it is sensible for mobile service providers to ‘give away’ a large quantity of messages amid the expanded messaging by customers via free chatting apps (e.g., WhatsApp, Facebook’s Messenger). The marginal cost per unit of any kind could be much lower now for the mobile network companies to make it economic for them to offer larger bundles, and thus attract customers to their ‘great value’ plans (i.e., the customer gets lots of ‘free’ units). Albeit, if customers do not utilise large enough portions of their quotas, they could end up paying for units they never get to benefit from.

A service plan was offered with the new phone purchased, including 10GBs of data, 5000 minutes and 5000 messages per month. This volume signalled a dramatic increase from my previous consumption levels. No doubt the new smartphone could support a huge data volume not possible with the previous semi-smartphone model, but also a volume hard to imagine how it may be used. Nor was it perceivable how to use anything near 5000 SMS. That is the magic of large numbers — they can be fascinating and captivating, yet meaningless at least in a short to medium term. The sales representative at the store and service centre of WM promised that it will save up to 45% of my bill so far. With the service package I get also ‘marvellous high-fidelity’ wireless-Bluetooth earphones, supposedly as a bonus or gift. No other plan was suggested. The relation of the earphones to the discount was not explained. Protesting that I do not really need those earphones did not help. It was awkward, but then it seemed that the enlarged traffic volume, that one might learn how to take advantage of, with a reduction in monthly cost could be worth it. The value of the earphones was negligible to me (but apparently not to WM). That is probably where System 1 got the hold of me. When not feeling on solid ground, swapped with documentation, and distracted, one may fail to pose difficult, intelligent questions;  System 2 remains dormant or blocked. It was a combination of desire to believe the offer is good for me, and to trust the company that it will treat me fairly.

The secret behind the earphones was revealed in the next monthly bill. If paid in cash, their price was about $150 vis-à-vis $900 for the iPhone. I agreed to pay for the iPhone in 12 credit installments (adding  5% in cost). However, the additional and unexpected payment for the earphones was set to be spread over 36 months (+65%! added to price in cash). The discount on service was for 12 months. The payments for the earphones would “eat” much of the discount during the first year. Furthermore, they will drag for another 24 months while the cost of service package returns to its previous level, though of course with a much greater usage allowance. Lesson: Beware of ‘free gifts’ and make sure to get all the details (see more in the section below on contracts).

This has brought me promptly back to the service centre — the staff refused to take their earphones back and gave me another nice demonstration of their performance. However, with the help of a kind supervisor we agreed that payments for both iPhone and earphones will be changed to 6 instalments with no interest (see more in the section on execution).

The Bluetooth earphones may well be a good product and the representatives were right to offer it, but it is wrong to impose the earphones as a ‘bonus’ or incentive if the customer is not interested and declines the offer. Furthermore, at least one other package option should have been recommended that would be more aligned with previous usage in recent months. A smart system should know how to use past behaviour of the customer as a benchmark and propose a reasonable expansion of usage levels of minutes, messages and data. First, it would make the customer feel that the company knows him or her (e.g., needs and usage patterns) and is trying in accordance to provide the most suitable personalised solutions. Second, when the quota of units posits a sensible ‘ceiling’ to the customer it may serve as a goal or an aspiration level to gradually increase his or her usage towards it, and then upgrade the service plan. Otherwise, the customer may be just lost, having no appreciative reference for scaling one’s personal usage levels (perhaps that is the objective, to let customers with less self-control carry away, but that is beyond the scope of this story).

Signing contracts to purchase products or receive services is frequently a sensitive matter and a host of potential pain points. This happens because customers usually cannot fully or even adequately read the contract and comprehend it at the time of transaction, and they are not sufficiently encouraged to spend the time reading and asking questions. The contract for my smartphone included, for example, the terms of payment, basic support, terms of usage,  liability and warranty, etc.. On each desk at the store and service centre of WM stands a tablet in portrait position. Regularly, it displays ads for services and products. However, WM saves on paperwork and employs the screen also to display contracts that can be signed digitally (later sent by e-mail). Reading the contract from the screen is not very convenient and the customer also cannot control the display to the pace of his or her reading. One is quickly brought to the place for signing. The contract for the earphones was separate in origin from the iPhone’s (later corrected); when the representative came to it, he jumped to the signature position which incidentally fell at the top of the screen. When asked to see what comes before, he said this is simply to confirm that I accept the earphones. At that point I wanted to trust him and WM. This turned out to be a mistake. Lesson: Never agree to sign a contract on a screen without seeing the previous screen pages (as you should not do when signing a paper contract). The tablet screen may appear informal and friendly but the contract is binding.

  • In fact, by returning to the issue of service plans, the tablet already on the desk can be used cleverly for displaying service options to a customer while taking into account his or her personal usage patterns. That is, the company can show the customer what would be the cost implication of a proposed service plan given current usage levels, and how it may change if usage levels increase by X%.

On top of all, bad execution of proceedings can temper even actions taken in good faith. It may happen as a result of neglect, lacking proficiency by the staff (e.g., how to use the computer system), or flaws in computer software (e.g., poor execution of instructions). Here are two examples — no attempt is made to guess what has caused them:

As told above, the payment arrangement was changed with special managerial consent to six instalments with no interest, as an option in the contract allows, for both the iPhone and earphones. Unfortunately, a notice from the bank as well as the credit card monthly bill soon revealed that the whole amount was charged in a single payment. The trap is apparently in the phrasing of the contract (translated): “The sum of $$$ that will be charged in one payment (or up to six payments to the choice of the customer at the time of acquisition)”. The phrase ambiguously does not specify in how many (equal) payments, up to six, that (cash) price will be charged. This ambiguity has led to practically ignoring the content in parentheses and what was agreed accordingly. It is noted that a statement on an option of payment in instalments with interest explicitly indicates the number of payments and amount of each one. The phrasing of the first statement must similarly be fixed for that option to have any validity.

In the second case, the company left in place a monthly charge (~$6) for a quota of 70 SMS from my previous service package. Obviously, this number is negligible relative to the new allowance of 5000 SMS a month in the new service plan with the iPhone. They should have automatically removed this obsolete component together with other components from the older plan. The customer service representative at the call centre argued that I should have asked it to be cancelled. That is, instead of apologising for an honest mistake, and possibly reimbursing me for the past month, she made it look as if I may have wanted a non-significant addition of 70 SMS to 5000 SMS (>70:1 ratio). That was already infuriating because it made no sense at all. Lesson: Always check your bills carefully.

The customer journey to purchase an iPhone evolved into a kind of chain of pitfalls, acts of malpractice, and errors of unknown source or cause. It must be emphasised that the troubles are concerned with the envelope of services that enable using the iPhone and not the device itself. It is a story of failure of sales and service representatives to listen, a tendency to repeat answers regardless of the customer’s response (i.e., lack of sensitivity or rigidity forced from above), and possibly a skill problem in retrieving information and instructing their computer systems correctly. Where supervisors or managers do try to fix things, organisational and technological pitfalls may stand in their way. Nonetheless, the more disturbing moments of the experience surface when a customer feels an attempt to manipulate has been made (e.g., by diverting attention or hiding information). Being manipulated generally feels uneasy, because among other things it infringes on a consumer’s autonomy to make a decision in one’s own good, but it is all the more damaging when done just to serve the manipulator’s interest (e.g., make a sale)[*].

Companies and customers alike can help in minimising negative encounters that can spoil customer journeys. Consumers can be more vigilant, pay more attention to details, and ask questions when offers do not sound or look right. Yet in the real world consumers cannot avoid being off guard, erring in judgement, or being complacent — much of the time humans are driven by the intuitive and instinctive System 1 mode of thinking. Companies can make greater effort to ensure customers have the relevant information and comprehend it; be attentive to what customers ask or argue; and overall show respect to customers and refrain from egregiously exploiting their cognitive vulnerabilities — perhaps naïve, but not illegitimate to expect.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

 

[*] Further reading: “Fifty Shades of Manipulation”; Cass R. Sunstein , 2016; Journal of Marketing Behavior, 1 (3-4), pp. 213-244.

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In late February the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2016 took place in Barcelona, including a large festive exhibition and a conference next to it. The leading motto of the MWC declared that “Mobile Is Everything“. This motto, directed primarily at people involved in the mobile industry, on either the technology-side or the management-side, could help to increase their interest in the event, create a uniting theme, and energise them to be part of the congress and its community. But what does this ‘invitation’ tell client-companies operating mainly outside the field of mobile telecom and technology? Moreover, what does this call suggest for the lives of consumers?

A little over 100,000 people from 204 countries attended the MWC this year according to MWC official website. Some 2,200 companies were represented in the exhibition; during that time the conference hosted speeches and panel discussions by experts and business leaders. An intensive media coverage on TV, online, and in the press, made sure news from the event reach almost everyone. Everything important, it would appear, has happened that week at the MWC.

Companies were presenting in the exhibition their technological solutions, methods and products. Each company could summarily describe its areas of specialisation by classification in any of 90 different product categories (companies more frequently applied 3-5 categories). A remarkable variety of mobile-related products, applications and services were shown in the exhibition: mobile devices (i.e., latest models of smartphones and tablets); accessories and mobile-supported peripheral equipment (e.g., virtual reality [VR], 3D printing, Internet of Things [IoT]); mobile apps; equipment and services in connection with mobile communication (e.g., infrastructure, business & tech consulting, data analysis). While some companies demonstrated apps as designed to be used by consumers, most exhibitors offered  platforms for developing apps (custom or adapted) and mobile-oriented methodologies and services intended for business clients.

  • The classification appears to single out the salience of mobile apps these days. It is interesting to note that out of the ninety categories, five were dedicated to App Development: General, Film, Gaming, Music, and Shopping.

Key areas associated with digital marketing (e.g., data analysis, CRM, content management) need to be extended from online (PC-based) to smart mobile devices. Clearly, technology companies that were not originally in the mobile industry have to adapt and add digital solutions respectively for the mobile channel. Yet it is no less a challenge for companies in lines of business that only use digital technologies for improving their performance (e.g., food, cosmetics, fashion, retail) to keep pace with the latest developments — in mobile communication to this matter. Some companies may produce their solutions in-house but many others have to hire specialist companies to provide them with systems or services tailored to their needs. Those kinds of companies, offering business solutions in a mobile context, would be found most likely at the MWC.

Mobile Advertising and Marketing was one of the more crowded categories (290 companies classified). One of the issues receiving particular attention in companies’ offerings is targeted advertising on mobile devices as well as improved targeting techniques for mobile apps. This category is closely tied with data analysis (e.g., to provide input for implementing more accurate personalised targeting), and is also connected with topics of customer relationship management (e.g., loyalty clubs) and content management in the mobile environment. For example, Ingenious Technologies (Germany) is an independent provider of cloud utilities for business analytics and marketing automation (e.g., omni-channel activities, tracking customer journeys), and Jampp (UK) specialises in app marketing, offering ways to grow consumer engagement in mobile apps (e.g., combine machine learning with methods of big data and programmatic buying). Exhibitors also addressed an increasing concern of monetization, that is the ability of businesses to charge and collect payments for content or for products and services that can be ordered on mobile devices, especially via apps.

In an era that promotes digital and data-driven marketing, it becomes imperative to cover and analyse data from mobile touchpoints. The category of Data Analysis (148 companies) includes the marketing aspect, yet relates to applications in other fields as well.  Among the applications concerned: integrating predictive analytics with campaign management (e.g., Lumata [UK]); analytic database platform for IoT and processing app-based queries (e.g., Infobright [Canada]); traffic analytics for enhancing urban mobility of vehicles and people (e.g., INRIX [UK]).

In the category of Consumer Electronics (222 companies) one may find: (a) devices (e.g., Samsung Galaxy S7 smartphones); (b) accessories (e.g., SanDisk’s portable data storage solutions, fast charging [Zap-go-charger, UK] or portable power backup [CasePower, Sweden]); and (c) components (e.g., LED components by Ledmotive [Spain]). But there were also some less usual devices such as a wearable device for tracking a dog’s health and fitness, which comes with an app (Sense of Intelligence [Finland]).

  • The area of audio (music) and video playing gains special interest, and is further connected to gaming and mobile entertainment overall. A couple of examples under the heading of consumer electronics: software for audio enhancement (AM3D A/S [Denmark]; a mobile video platform, supporting live streaming and video chat (avinotech [Germany]). Video also appears in the context of content management, such as an advanced technology for accelerating display of video content in HD TV quality (Giraffic [Israel]).

This brief review would not be complete without the rising category of Location Technologies and Services (141 companies). Location technologies and their applications can be found in different areas, not just marketing or shopping. For instance, a French company (Sensineo) offers an ultra-low-GPS tracking and positioning device which may help in locating cars or dogs, but furthermore important, tracing vulnerable people who may have lost their way and need support or medical assistance — location apps and mobile alarm devices emerge as new aids to healthcare. In the context of advertising, we may refer to technologies that bridge online and offline domains (e.g., targeting by combining text analysis of consumers’  conversations in social media and intelligence on where they go in the physical world [Cluep, Canada], eliciting online-to-offline engagement in brand or retail campaigns [Beintoo, Italy]). Another technology (by Pole Star [France]) specialises in indoor location, involving analytics through precise geofencing (i.e., activation as people enter specified perimeters) and proximity detection. The last three examples have apparent relevance to consumer behaviour during shopping trips.

  • In regard specifically to development of shopping mobile apps (46 companies), there seems to be greater reference of exhibitors to technologies that may support shopping utilities but not enough examples for apps that truly connect retailers and shoppers. As an example for a more relevant app, Tiendeo Web Marketing (Spain) offers an app, working in partnership with retail chains, that informs consumers of weekly ads, deals or coupons in their area of residence.

For businesses that are client-users of technologies and associated services, the message is very clear — in order to be accessible and relevant to consumers, the business must have mobile presence. Consumer brands of products and services, and in retail, cannot afford to neglect the mobile channel. Moreover they must have a strong showing because the competition is intense and ‘mobile is everything’. The need to be present and useful via mobile devices (mobile websites and apps) is undisputed. As more consumers are engaged with their smartphones much of the time, and perform more tasks in mobile mode, companies should be there available to them. The idea, however, that this is all that matters for marketing and customer service is dubious. Companies are under endless pressure to keep to-date with continuous advances in technology. Technology and consulting companies remind their clients all the time that in order to be competitive they must apply the most advanced mobile features and tools. But companies have to be available, effective and attractive through multiple channels and the kind of pressure implied by the MWC’s motto is neither helpful nor productive.

The danger is that companies engaged in consumer marketing may neglect other important channels in attempt to develop a strong mobile presence. In fact, this kind of shift to interactions through newer technological channels has been happening for years. The latest shift advised to companies is from Web 2.0 on personal computers to mobile websites and apps. It could mean that companies would be forced to invest more in mobile compatibility of their websites, while neglecting improvement of the functionality and visual attractiveness of their usual websites. One of the implications of the shift to online and mobile touchpoints is reduction in direct human interactions (e.g., fewer brick-and-mortar service branches, fewer service hours, not enough trained and skilled personnel in call centres). But consumers continue to appeal call centres for help, and when faced with inadequate assistance they are encouraged to prefer computer-based interactions. More companies offer customers options to chat by text, audio and video, but on the other hand they also refer customers more frequently to virtual agents. The mobile facilities are not desirable for everyone, and at least not all of the time; having the most advanced technology is not always an advantage, except for tech-enthusiasts.

Companies that develop technologies and market hardware and software products and associated services are on a constant race to provide more advanced competent solutions. It starts to be a problem when too many companies are pursuing a single main course — mobile in our case. It is the kind of push induced by MWC’s organizers that should worry us. The interest of GSMA — a consortium of mobile telecom operators, joined by device manufacturers, software companies etc. (“broader mobile ecosystem”) — in putting mobile under the spotlight is clear. However, following the claim that “mobile is everything” can have negative consequences for many stakeholders in industry and also for the general public. There is a sense of rush to develop apps and all other sorts of mobile products and utilities that is concerning. It may never develop into a bubble as fifteen years ago because the conditions are different and better (i.e., stronger technological foundations, greater experience), but there are disturbing signs that should alert stakeholders.

It is hard to argue with the many conveniences that mobile phones, particularly smartphones, provide to consumers. Basically, if one is late for a meeting, wants to set a meeting point with a friend in the city, or just needs to update a colleague in the office about anything, he or she can call while being out on the way somewhere. It has become an invaluable time saver as one can settle any professional or business issues at work while travelling. Yet the elevation of mobile phones to computer-based ‘smart’ phones (and in addition tablets) has expanded greatly the number and types of tasks people can perform while being away from home or office. It is not just sending and receiving voice calls and SMS but also e-mails and various forms of updates on social media networks. Then one can check the news and stock prices, prepare shopping lists and compare products and prices while visiting shops, schedule a forgotten appointment for the doctor, order a table at a restaurant for the evening, listen to his favorite music, and far more. The point is that any minute one can find something to do with the smartphone; people cannot lose hold and sight of their smartphones. Smartphones no longer just serve consumers for their convenience but the consumers ‘serve’ the smartphones.

The motto of MWC could be right in arguing that for consumers ‘mobile is everything’, yet it is also complicit in eliciting the consumers to become even more preoccupied with their mobile devices and adopt forms of behaviour that are not honestly in their benefit. Consumers bear a responsibility to notice these effects and sanction their use of mobile devices reasonably. For instance, people not only can call others when convenient but may also be reached by others in less convenient times (e.g., by an employer). Talking and messaging while travelling on a bus, taxi or train is fine but there are stronger warnings now that people put themselves and others in greater danger if doing so while driving, because this diverts their attention from the road. Being preoccupied with their smartphones causes people in general to look less around them and be less communicative with other people. Immediately sorting every query on a website or app may get consumers hasten purchase decisions unnecessarily and also ignore other channels of resolution (e.g., consulting staff in-store). Finally, relying on mobile devices to find any information instantly online evokes people to make less effort to remember and accumulate new knowledge, to retrieve information from memory, and think (i.e., less cognitive effort).

The motto “Mobile Is Everything” sounds shallow and simplistic. Sweeping generalisations usually do no much good — they cannot be taken too seriously. Perhaps this title was meant to be provocative, so as to fuel the MWC with enthusiasm, but it can end up aggravating. The field of mobile telecom and digital technology has much to show for in achievements in recent years. There is no need to suggest that businesses and consumers cannot do without ‘mobile’ and should invest themselves even more fully into it. Using such a motto is not acting out of strength.

Mobile indeed is a great deal, yet is definitely not everything.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Markting)

 

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