Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stillborn innovation at Campbell's

Late last year, a colleague left my place of employment to go work for Campbell's soup as a Director of Innovation. She sent an email to a bunch of folks with her new contact info and at the end of her email it said "eat a lot of soup".

My initial reaction was that this wasn't likely to convince anyone to change their soup eating behavior. But then my marketing brain kicked in and I thought these email signatures could be a great marketing vehicle.

It seemed to me that since this is a free country, people are already eating as much Campbell's soup as they want. The soup is widely available, relatively cheap and everyone has heard of it. So simply telling folks to eat more of it is pretty much a waste of time.

But why not put recipes in the email signature so people can learn new ways to use Campbell's soup? I thought people could either do this on their own or have their email system randomly pull recipes from a database and add it to the signature of employees that opt-in.

So I sent that idea to my colleague. She suggested that I submit the idea to Campbell's idea submission website when it launched. A few months later she wrote to me and sent me the link for their just launched website. I went in and submitted the idea.

Just the other day,
9 months later, I got a letter from Campbell's. The letter said:

"Thank you for submitting your idea through the
Ideas for Innovation program and for offering us the opportunity to give it an initial review. Although we appreciate your interest in Campbell Soup Company, we have determined that it falls outside the Company's priorities at the present time.

We wish you the very best in your future endeavors."

Are they kidding me?! They just sent me the cheesy corporate job applicant rejection notice! So let's look at the problems here:

1) They're sending me this letter a full 9 months after I submitted my idea. I had totally forgotten about sending them the idea. I had forgotten about Campbell's. But now they send me this letter basically reminding me that after taking the time to submit an idea, they didn't have the decency to get back to me quickly.
2) They're telling me that they gave this an "initial review". Just how long would a thorough review take?
3) They're not implementing the idea. This is a no-brainer idea. There's just no reason not to go ahead and do it. They have recipes on their website. They could just send out a note to employees asking them to append a recipe to their email signature and to change it up every so often. This would take 1 minute. I freely admit that my idea is not going to disrupt the soup market. But it might get a few people to reconsider the utility of canned soup. Submitting this idea to a 9 month review is just silly.
4) They're wishing me the best in my future endeavors? Give me a break! I didn't apply to work for them. I didn't invest many hours and dollars in developing this idea hoping to sell it to Campbell's and cash out and retire. I sent them a tiny little no-brainer idea for their benefit. They respond with a bad rejection letter. It's condescending and just plain dumb.

The fact that it took them 9 months to do this is so precious. A human life could have been created in this time. But they produced stillborn innovation.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rite Aid makes the lifetime boycott list!

About a month ago I went to Rite Aid to buy some Pepto. I happened to walk by the shelf with deodorant and saw that the product I use had a $5 rebate. (There was a sign on the shelf.)

So I picked up the deodorant. I asked the clerk how to redeem the rebate and she gave me instructions. I had to go onto a website, create an account and input the information from the receipt. Reasonably convenient, nice experience.

But then I get an email telling me I didn't qualify for the rebate because I didn't meet the terms. What terms? Well it turn out I didn't buy the product during the proper rebate time period.

Huh? There was a sign on the shelf. That they put there.

I wrote back and they stuck by their guns. Are you frickin' kidding me?

I'm not angry that they screwed up. It seems they put their sign up too early. Mistakes happen. But I bought the deodorant. They made their money. They were offering a rebate anyway. But due to an error, the purchase happened a few days outside of the window. All they had to do was apologize for the error and the inconvenience and send me the rebate.

But they couldn't work that out. So now for $5 they have lost me forever as a customer.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A huge miss for Starbucks

On a recent trip to my local Starbucks, I saw a brochure for the new Starbucks Gold card. I was intrigued. I've been going there a lot and the 10% discount attracted me. But I have to admit somewhat sheepishly that I was also attracted by the thought of being in this elite club. Starbucks describes this as "Starbucks Gold is the Card for people who really love Starbucks."

So I purchased a card on their website. You pay $25 and get 10% off and several other benefits. I did the math and the 10% would have paid out for me.

But then I found out that it could not be combined with the benefits of my existing Starbucks card. Which got me wondering. What benefits that I currently have would I lose? It turns out, I would lose my free soymilk and free syrup. As soon as I realized that I would lose benefits, the luster of this card wore off.

I use soymilk every time. So this seriously eroded the financial value of the card.

Perhaps more important, I felt that this card was not the elite card. It was not the premium card for Starbucks favorite customers.

After all, I would have been switching from a free card that gave me free soymilk and syrup to a card that I had to pay for. Why the heck should I lose benefits in that offering?! If this is their elite card, shouldn't it have all the benefits of the free card and then some? Isn't that why people would pay?

Starbucks told me that I would have to choose which set of benefits was more meaningful to me. That's fine, but not if one card is free and the other comes at a price and is called "Gold". This "Gold" card is not a premium card, it is just another card with a different set of benefits. And a price tag.

This is a boneheaded move. I called to cancel the Starbucks Gold card. Moreover, I am seriously considering adding Starbucks to my list of businesses that I will never again patronize.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Is it always moral to push consumers to consume?

I am getting a lot more emails from retailers I have purchased from. These emails are offering all sorts of incentives for me to purchase. Now I haven't called this spam (I know there is a formal definition) because I don't really mind getting these emails from retailers I like. And if I do, I can always opt out.

But while I don't mind getting the emails, I'm wondering if it is moral for businesses to be doing this. As a marketer, I know exactly what is going on at these businesses and all others. There are teams of people who are looking at the macroeconomic trends and thinking about how they can get people to spend more. They may launch some products or services that are more appropriate given the times, but product development has a long lead time so, more often, businesses are looking at various incentives to increase consumption.

But should people be spending more now? Isn't excessive consumption how we got in this mess in the first place? Too many people buying houses they couldn't afford. Or buying houses they could afford and taking out mortgages they could not afford to fund a lifestyle they could not afford.

When marketing was less sophisticated, companies might have overtly tried to scare people (you need this product or else...) or make them feel guilty (Susie will be the only one without the new...) I bet many people would agree that such practices are immoral. You might call it predatory marketing. Well marketing is considerably more sophisticated today, but does that matter from a moral standpoint? Is it any less predatory?

Now the issue isn't so simple. We have a consumption driven economy. When people don't consumer, it hurts the economy. Badly.

So I don't know. But something feels a little wrong to me when I get all these emails.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Chill out for charity

A few weeks ago I participated in a fundraiser for charity, the Walk for Hope in Potomac, Maryland (info here). The reason I participated is that I was invited by a friend who is, herself, a breast cancer survivor. And, of course, I think it is a good cause. To be clear, participation meant that in addition to driving 4 hours each way to go to Maryland, I paid a few hundred dollars to the organization.

About a week after the walk, I got a letter from the organization thanking me for my participation. But then they ruined it. They asked me for more money. And then they followed up a week or so later with another request for money.

Now I have no question that this is a good cause. And my participation was not purely selfless. After all, I never participated before I had a friend who went through this. Nor will this qualify me in any way for the Mother Theresa award.

But I did feel good about having participated. I enjoyed the feeling that I had done something good in my own small way and that I had brought my kids with me to teach them these values.

The letter from the organization robbed me, in a way, of my sense of pride for having done something good because it seemed to say that I'm back at square one in my relationship with them. I did something good for them by sending them money and participating. They thanked me. And now they can start the cycle again. I felt like a mark. Like someone who is there just to be sucked dry for whatever he's got.

I want to reiterate: I know my small donation doesn't make me a hero. But the fact is that I am a human with feelings like anyone else. [Note: cue the violins.] And I am motivated at least in part by these feelings. The organization will do much better for itself by treating me like a person.

Think about your personal social life for a minute. If you ask someone for a favor and they do it for you, you don't turn around and ask for another one right away. Normal people understand in their social lives that this behavior is unacceptable. The relationship needs to get back to equilibrium. There has to be a give and take. When someone has done you a favor, you are supposed to return the favor before asking for another. The thank you letter is a pretty good "give" for the organization. Not truly remarkable but still acceptable.

But the rules of give and take don't work this way. You cannot return someone's favor and then immediately ask for another favor because that makes the relationship seem purely transactional. Some relationships are truly special and don't rely on give and take. Nobody focuses on the take. But most have some element of reciprocity at their core. We all know this. But it is considered rude in most social relationships to bring this to the fore. We are supposed to pretend that we are motivated only by selflessness when we give. When someone returns a favor and immediately requests another, he makes it clear that his "give" was merely a means of securing his next "take." He brings the reciprocity requirement to the fore. Not OK.

This is what the City of Hope did in their letter.

I write this not because I don't support them any longer. I do. I will participate again next year. And I may even donate again before then. I write this because I believe that charity is important and I want City of Hope to succeed. I think charitable organizations need to get a bit smarter about their marketing. See here for another example of charities not thinking through the real world social implications of their actions.

So City of Hope: chill out a bit. Let me savor my admittedly overblown feelings of having selflessly saved the breasts. Send me a nice note or even email (to save money). Then wait a bit. Let the relationship return to equilibrium. Then you can ask for more money. I think you'll do better that way.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A miss by Ben & Jerry

I saw that Ben & Jerry's advertised free ice cream on election day.

So I told my future ex-wife (FEW) who was home with the kids today. She took them and found out that they were only giving ice cream to the voters.

That's a big miss as far as I'm concerned. They should have assumed that there would be moms and kids coming in. And when you make a big deal about free ice cream and then disappoint the little kiddies, you've made a big mistake.

So now I "owe" my little guy some ice cream. Good for me. I love taking him. Not so good for Ben & Jerry.

We'll be headed to Coldstone.

How about we actually educate kids on election day!

What is the deal with closing schools on election day? I think it's all wrong. Kids should be in school learning. It's not like we have such a high-performance education system in the US that we can afford to cancel a perfectly good day for learning.

Now I've read that many public schools cancel classes because their buildings are used as polling places and they have security concerns. That is legitimate and I will offer some solutions below. But my kids go to private school and their classes are canceled as well. Why? Voting is a pretty simple matter. It took me 15 minutes this morning. Surely my kids' teachers could find a way to do their jobs AND vote. Now I can understand that teaching and voting at the same time might be a bit difficult. (Although people seem to manage singing and showering at the same time.) But teachers can vote early in the morning before school. Or in the evening after school. And kids could learn.

Now some thoughts on solving the safety problem in schools on election day:

First, don't have voting take place in schools! Schools are for kids to learn. Not for adults to vote. Would we hold voting in hospitals and kick all the sick people out?

Here are some alternatives:
1) Wal-Mart. Good way to juice the economy. Plus many people probably have to go shopping anyway so it saves them a trip.
2) Soup kitchens. People can vote and then volunteer their time.
3) Bowling alleys. C'mon! Who doesn't love bowling?!
4) Airports. People are waiting for delayed flights anyway. Find a way to let them engage in the process of democracy while being subjected to the tyrannies of the process of travel. ["The process of travel". Now that's a felicitous turn of phrase. I'm well on my way to being the next Poet Laureate... Of Kazakhstan!]
5) Bakeries. They smell good. Enough said.

I'm sure there are many more good ideas. Hopefully we can solve this problem before next year. It is quite silly to vote for candidates - who have spent time talking about their education plans - in a way that displaces kids from their schools.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The consequences of over-regulation

We live in an over-regulated society. The government tells us what kind of toilets we can use, how our homes must be built... It's crazy!

Well apparently, all of the regulations that could possibly have been created by our way too intrusive state, have already been created. So now all that is left is for our government to create regulations that contradict other regulations.

Next, there will be new regulations specifying when to follow the original regulation and when to follow the newer one that contradicts the first.

This is what happens when government is run by lawyers. I think we need to try something else. Maybe we should have government run by chefs, or clowns (the literal kind, we already have the metaphorical variety). Or maybe even monkeys. You know that old saying that if you sat a monkey in front of a typewriter and gave him a few hundred years he would eventually produce a Shakespearean play? Well let's give it a whirl. But in order to speed things up, let's just get a few thousand monkeys and see if they can do better.