Cook acts after Browett upsets the Apple cart with half-baked retail recipe

October 30, 2012

The surprise is not that John Browett, former Dixons CEO and Tesco high-flier, quit Apple after only 6 months. The surprise is he wasn’t fired earlier: or indeed that he was hired at all.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Browett’s retail skills, in their place. Which is, or was, running a British high street retailer; not at the helm of the retail arm of a global corporation fanatically dedicated to innovative product launches and superior customer service.

The announcement of Browett’s departure, which coincides with – but is only tangentially connected to – the sacrificial dispatch of Scott Forstall, head of iPhone software (for the horlicks he made of the new Maps app), has been greeted with widespread “told-you-so” cynicism. And nowhere more articulately than in the comments section of The Telegraph online.

My own favourite? Quote from Mr Cook : ‘Mr Browett had a commitment to customer service “like no one else we’ve met.” ‘ Similar to Morecambe and Wise writing: ‘We shall tell all our friends’ in the visitors’ book at a particularly awful Blackpool b&b.

Quite. The fault lies not so much with Browett (who is in any case going to walk away with much of his £36m golden hello intact) for initiating ‘pile it high and flog it cheap’ tactics – the only thing he knows – but with Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook. Whatever was he thinking of when he made the appointment late last year? Browett is the complete antithesis of everything Apple stands for.

It’s not about command-and-control retail structures where costs are minutely controlled. It is about money-being-no-object where customer service is concerned. It’s also about silo’ed autonomy, something alien to Browett’s own retail culture.

Cook can chalk this one down to inexperience. But it does make you wonder whether he’s got a sufficient measure of the “vision thing”.

Forget Big Brother Facebook – it’s sneaky little sisters we really need to worry about

January 20, 2012

By Robert Dwek 

Talk about love-hate relationships. We read this week that Facebook – with a mere 800 million plus accounts worldwide – is now among America’s most hated companies – thanks to the perception that it doesn’t really care about its users’ privacy.

When are we finally going to have the real debate about privacy – the one relevant to the 21st rather than the 20th century ? It’s what we might call Big Brother versus little brother, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.

Facebook was founded, as we all know thanks to the movie, by college geeks who wanted to assess the “fitness” of female students. In that respect, it was an extension of American high school, where the only privacy invaders are your peers.

This Facebook DNA has remained at the core of the company, no matter how world-conquering and gargantuan it has become. The Big Brother is not so much the evil corporate that is Facebook HQ – or for that matter the evil corporates who pay Facebook to promote themselves. No, the Big Brother lurking deep within Facebook is in fact … us. We, the 800 million users.

And that brings me neatly onto my little brother – actually, little sister – story. The other day my younger sibling who lives far across the sea, popped up on my computer screen, via Google Talk, with the words: “Enjoying Abba are we ?” What the ?! How the !! did she know my partner had been blaring out a bunch of Abba songs on her iPhone ? For a couple of seconds it was quite spooky.

But the (prosaic) answer came soon enough. I’d forgotten that sometime recently, in yet another unmemorable online moment, I’d allowed Spotify to tell the Facebook universe all about my music-listening habits. That is why Spotify-Facebook assumed it was me listening to Abba and put words to this effect on my Facebook page.

Here’s the problem when it comes to the potential evil of Big Brother: corporates like Facebook and Spotify – both relying on incredibly small numbers of employees relative to their global reach – will do almost nothing of interest with this data that they have collected about “me”.

These companies – and indeed most modern companies – have neither the resources nor the inclination to exploit all this data that they are supposedly collecting. I remember writing breathless stuff about the “database revolution” back in the early ‘90s, waxing lyrical about the impending golden age of “personalisation” and “one-to-one” marketing that was about to dawn. Well, frankly, it never did.

Most companies are utterly incompetent in using our data. Phone calls that are “recorded for training purposes” disappear into a black hole of indifference.

But marketers persist in believing their own propaganda. More to the point, consumers believe in it too!

The fact is, Big Brother died with the end of communism – he’s so last century. Little brother, however, or indeed little sister, is alive and well. Marketers finally caught onto little bro when they realised they were too lazy and incompetent to do the spying themselves. So they outsourced it – to their customers.

OK, I’m being somewhat tongue in cheek. Is forwarding a “viral” email spying ? Is my little sister’s commenting on my apparent musical taste something sinister ? Odd and unexpected, maybe, but sinister, no. The point is that We-The-People, we the seething mass of little brothers and sisters – we are the only ones who give enough of a damn to spy on each other.

So, the potential “evil” of a massively understaffed company like Facebook amounts to no more than its ability to empower our voyeurism.

The thing we should “hate” in a “most hated company” is not what they might do with our data but what we might do with it. And maybe we should be grateful for small mercies: my sister at least did something, and in a very timely way, with the information presented.

God bless outsourcing.

Robert Dwek is a writer, journalist and blogger, whose interests include marketing and social media.

Why Joel Ewanick’s Apple comparison is just pie in the sky for General Motors

August 24, 2011

“Feisty” is the word that most often comes to mind when describing General Motors global chief marketing officer Joel Ewanick.

Since arriving from Hyundai (where he held a similar position) last year, the man seems to have barely slept as he implements a whirlwind catalogue of changes. This month alone, while others absent themselves on their summer vacation, Ewanick has reorganised his marketing department and called a review of the $3bn GM global media account.

But restless energy – commendable though it is – should not be mistaken for vision. The limits of Ewanick’s intellectual rigour, although not his soaring ambition, were also on display earlier this month – at GM’s second annual Global Business Conference.

In it, Ewanick made the extraordinary declaration that his goal is to transform GM not into a better car company, but a future Apple.

Nor was this just a rhetorical trope dished out to a friendly audience. He’s deadly serious. “It’s time,” Ewanick said, “To clearly differentiate our brand and align closer to a true global brand like Apple. It’s time for an automotive company to step out and address consumers and their needs in a way that’s never been done before.”

Admirable sentiments of course. But just what does he mean? Technological innovation is integral  to selling cars, but that doesn’t mean the motor sector is in any way comparable to Silicon Valley. And even if it were, rust-belt Motown marques, with their high social costs and Chapter 11 legacy, are not where you would start. Ironically, in fact, the US car brand with the most potential for eye-catching product innovation and design is not American at all: it’s one whose marketing Ewanick has already captained – Hyundai.

But if the future is elsewhere, Ewanick has, in a curious way, scored a debating point about the past. GM is comparable with Apple: but only in the past tense. Back in the fifties, when Americana and US global power were at their height, a new Chevvie or Cadillac was a potent symbol of the consumer dream. It encapsulated the freedom to travel anytime, anywhere worth travelling to, on the interstate highway. So potent was this dream that GM – like Apple today – was the world’s biggest company by market capitalisation. It even became a mantra in US foreign policy: “What’s good for GM is good for America.”

No chance of recapturing that distant eminence, now or in the future. Cars are simply not the must-have consumer products they once were; even in fast-growing economies like China’s – where they may well be viewed as status symbols, but not on the level of fifties America. Who, on the other hand, would not break their neck to acquire the latest Apple iPhone?

It’s possible, of course, that I have misunderstood Ewanick’s apparently ludicrous aspiration. All he was really talking about was the much more modest goal of creating brands with universally accepted global appeal. I don’t think so, though.

What’s certain is that neither Ewanick nor his boss, GM CEO Dan Akerson, is the next Steve Jobs – despite the superficial brand-turnaround comparison.

Blackberry and Nokia: Twilight of the cellphone idols

June 17, 2011

Nothing dates quite like fashion, and nowhere is this truer than the technology sector – as Blackberry-maker RIM and Nokia are finding to their cost. In 10 years’ time, it’s conceivable that Blackberry will be no more than an extension in someone else’s brand repertoire, and Nokia – still, if only just, the market-leading brand in handset manufacturing – will have no more resonance than Ericsson does today. They are the brand equivalents of Shelley’s Ozymandias.

Salience in the consumer technology sector is all about keeping abreast of the latest trends. And it is clear that Nokia and RIM have not. Nokia has failed to conquer the smartphone market, while RIM has failed to continue dominating it. Both companies are now beset by lengthy delays in product launches, increasing investor pessimism and, that natural corollary, plunging share prices.

At a technical level, both these companies seemed singularly blind to the two-pronged threat from the iPhone and Android operating system until it was right on top of them. Nokia has belatedly discovered, under its new chief executive Stephen Elop, that its smartphone operating system is not up to snuff and is having to broker a last-minute and doubtful marriage with Microsoft’s superior version. RIM, on the other hand, had grown complacent about its apparently unassailable position in the elite corporate sector, with the result that it failed to adequately prepare for the advent of the touchscreen phone and the 10in tablet.

A case of sclerotic corporate cultures fatally mesmerized by their legacy of previous success? Only up to a point. Nokia and RIM, looked at more strategically, are victims of haphazard technological convergence. Who, 10 years ago, could have seen that mobile communications would come to be dominated by a formerly ailing computer manufacturer and an ingredient brand dreamed up by the world’s largest search engine? And who, even once the trend had become established 3 years ago, would have had the corporate courage, or foolhardiness, to bet all their assets and legacy on it being the inexorable path of the future?

It’s a sad truism that companies spend billions of dollars every year on insight and trend-spotting. But usually lack the judgement or willpower to make proper use of it.

UPDATE 4/7/11: “RIM is the Wang of mobile phones.” That was how Charles Dunstone (CEO of Carphone Warehouse Group) referred to the Canadian Blackberry-maker at last week’s Google ThinkMobile conference. Wang was a classy corporate-oriented computer company that specialised in just one thing, word processing. But it was blown away by Microsoft’s Office. Wang filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and eventually disappeared into Netherlands-based Getronics in 1999, never to be seen again. I wish I had thought of that parallel first, Charles…

Former Sun and NoW boss Mike Anderson launches smartphone apps company

May 19, 2010

Mike Anderson, former managing director of The Sun and News of the World, is launching a company specialising in building and marketing mobile phone applications for smartphones. Handheld Company, based in Chelsea, opens its doors this month.

Anderson believes that with smartphones – such as the iPhone, Blackberry and Google-spawned Android handsets – becoming cheaper, more efficient and popular, the mobile platform is finally coming of age as a commercial opportunity. And that the way ahead is to be found in the development of apps that work effectively across platforms.

Anderson tells me: “Most brands, and agencies, don’t yet understand that there’s an opportunity beyond Apple and the iPhone, which account for most of the 200,000 apps currently available. This business is just taking off, with a lot of smarter apps about to come on stream. But the rhythm of publishing, the model, isn’t yet established. There’s a shortage of good developers and lots of ‘garage’ moms and pops out there. Few understand how to go to market, fewer still how to make money. And no one yet has grabbed enough land to be a significant player. There’s a lot of consolidation coming in the next 18 months.” Anderson sees the business evolving along the same lines as the record and computer games industry, with successful developers and labels commanding “rock star” status and fortunes.

Handset Company is based in a converted warehouse, dubbed the Chelsea Apps Factory, and has an initial staff – comprising designers, software and marketing specialists – of about 30. Much of the start-up capital has been provided by Anderson and his partners, but he is now initiating a private equity funding round.

Anderson has had a long career in the newspaper industry, punctuated by short spells in commercial television and as a media buyer. Before joining News International as managing director of News Group Newspapers in 2005, he was md of The Standard, and before that founding md of the successful freesheet, Metro – both at that time owned by Associated Newspapers. Anderson finally stepped down at News International in autumn last year, after tragedy blighted his private life. His wife, Jane, died of cancer, leaving him to bring up three children. In his own words: “It was a difficult time – it is very different being a single parent… When I came back, News International couldn’t find a role for me. They tried to find something, but I thought the best thing to do would be to get out and do what I believe in.” Initially, he set up a consultancy, Frank Business – one of his clients being The Sun.

At Handheld Company, Anderson’s partners are Mike Spencer, former marketing director of QVC Shopping Channel and the Disney Channel Europe; mobile content specialist Gordon Robson; Jo Rabin, former chief technical officer of Reuters Mobile Flirtomatic; and communciations and brand specialist Jane Allan.

To young people, the car has essentially become a mobile

August 24, 2009

imagesIt’s ugly and I wouldn’t buy it. But I’m not the target market. And you have to hand it to Nissan, they have come up with an intriguing social insight.

I’m talking about the US launch of the chunky little Cube, which bears an uncanny similarity to an iPhone on wheels. The similarity is quite deliberate, according to Nissan North America Christian Meunier: “We envision owners using their Cubes as one of their essential mobile devices, connecting with friends, sharing music and sharing fun,” he says.

Actually, the Cube – very much a youth car – long predates the iPhone, having first launched in 1998. Credit for this particular positioning must go to Nissan’s ad agency TBWAChiatDay which – you guessed it if you didn’t know already – also handles iPod and iPhone marketing for Apple.

I don’t think the parallel works at all levels.  iPhones, even in the USA, are far too expensive to be the exclusive preserve of youth. Whereas this $14,000 car is unlikely to appeal to anyone more mature. But as a planning insight the new Cube is not without interest.

550 Spyder to die for

550 Spyder: To die for

If you think about it, the slim, elegant smart phone of today’s generation is the equivalent of life in the fast lane in the Fifties. James Dean liked fast cars so much he managed to kill himself in one. Today, according to research conducted by CNW Marketing, young people – when asked what would most impress their friends – said an iPhone (80%). A new car came a distant second (20%).

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