Accepting Realities, Changing a Blog

I have been, rather obviously, a terrible blogger. My commitment lacks. And I’ve finally come to accept the fact that the root cause, the core reason, is that what genuinely interests me fits squarely in the advocacy realm, beyond the previously published scope of this blog.

So it’s time I accepted the fact that what I really want to write about it everything I see and read and consequently think about the choices society makes, not just those made by brands. The Clarity Blog has been given its pink slip. It has been retired. In its place will be my 2 cents. Broad ranging subjects will still be the environment, entrepreneurship, marketing and communications, probably in that order. But don’t expect counseling or teaching. It’s unlikely you’ll find either here. Just My 2 Cents.

Helping a market grow as a segment shrinks

I grabbed the New York Times with lunch today and found myself very curious while reading today’s Advertising story about Miracle-Gro’s new campaign focusing on gardeners rather than gardening results. Why, I wondered, would the brand change course and begin trying to grow the total market rather than continue its decades-long push for greater and greater share? What was up?

I have to digress just a second here to explain my connection to this topic. I spent the bulk of my years in Minneapolis doing PR and marketing communications work for home and garden clients such as Weyerhaeuser, the Canadian Peat Moss Association and Toro. I approved the expense to have one of my staff members test for her Master Gardener certificate. I know a couple things about promoting gardening products. Second, I now have a lot of square feet of gardens at my house. ORGANIC gardens. So I decided to dig a bit.

And I dug up a couple clues to the macro trends that might be behind this effort.

Gardening, as a hobby and an expenditure, is growing slowly. The 2013 National Gardening Survey report from the National Gardening Association (NGA) showed a small increase, for the second year in a row, in lawn and garden participation and sales, with national chains continuing to dominate market share. Nationwide, the survey showed a increase of 2 million more households (2%) in 2012 compared with the year before. The study also reported that U.S. households spent $29.5 billion on their lawns and gardens in 2012 with average annual spending flat at about $347 per year. This data alone would lead industry associations to consider consumer campaigns to get more Americans to garden.IMG_0163

But then I found another, seemingly small statistic from 2008 Environmental Lawn and Garden surveys: The number of U.S. households that use only all-natural fertilizer, insect, and weed controls increased from an estimated 5 million households in 2004 to 12 million in 2008.  That’s a 2.4x increase.

Also interesting was why they only used natural fertilizers. The top 5 reasons given were:

  1. it’s better for the environment (73 percent);
  2. to reduce the risk of exposure to chemicals in my yard (59 percent);
  3. to reduce water pollution through fertilizer runoff (54 percent);
  4. it fits my way of life (43 per cent); and
  5. to produce my own, safe, fresh produce (37 per cent).

The Survey also asked respondents with a yard or garden how likely it is that they will start using all-natural gardening methods in the future. Of the estimated 100 million U.S. households with a yard or garden, 17% reported they definitely will start using all-natural gardening methods in the future, 22 % said they probably will, 28 % said they might or might not Only 10 % said they probably will not with just 2 % reporting they definitely will not start using all-natural gardening methods in the future.

Miracle-Gro does make organic fertilizers and sells bags of organic gardening and potting soil. But to most organic gardeners, natural fertilizers don’t come in bottles and bags. Don’t my word for it, check Wikipedia and read it for yourself. Given that, the gardening trends might be keeping the folks at Miracle-Gro awake at night. Now I understand the push to get more people gardening.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles — And Brand Consistency

We’ve been looking at a lot of these recently.

Driven by an acceptance that we really need a mountain-worthy car and it was time for the cute little sports car to go, in the last few days we took test-drives, sold a car to Honda, bought another from Subaru that won’t arrive for a month and arranged to borrow one from Nissan, part of our deal as Leaf leasers, if that’s a word.  A lot of automotive dealer conversations in a very short time.

And a few things stood out in the sales, customer service and brand consistency categories. The combined experience made me think about the realize – for the first time – how little brand consistency there is with a lot of automotive companies in terms of product families, brand image and customer experience. I’m going to pick on Nissan here for a second and focus on the brand family.

Everyone who knows me or has read this blog knows I have a Leaf, at least until Aug. There’s a lot to love about a Leaf, especially when you have your own garage and only have to plug the car into a wall socket to charge it every night. There are a few issues, like the heater that sucks the battery dry and the range that makes long days with multiple trips even in the city nerve-wracking as you watch the charge slip into the red zone. But for the most part, it’s fun to drive, comfortable and I love feeling like I’m trying to reduce my personal impact on the planet.

Part of the deal with leasing a Leaf is that Nissan will give you loaner cars when you want to take a trip the Leaf can’t handle, read: anything out of town and on a schedule. When we leased the car, the sales guy made it sound like we could borrow any Nissan we requested if it was available. But that’s not true. There are a couple models available and you take what you’re given. One Nissan we borrowed this summer was a genuinely awful car and a huge disappointment. An Altima we borrowed to take to Oregon last Sept. was great. It was comfortable, handled well and got decent mileage for a sedan of that size. But what really strikes me now is this: Nissan doesn’t make any other cars that really appeal to me. I went out of my way to get a Leaf but there’s nothing else in the lineup that fits me. Why, let’s start with some assumptions about how drives a Leaf.

Why drive a Leaf?

There are essentially two groups of people likely to lease or buy a Nissan Leaf. The first group is all about the environment and reducing their carbon footprint. They’re seeking high fuel-efficiency and maybe low impact manufacturing if they’re paying a lot of attention. Nissan’s new Sentra can get up to a respectable 40 mpg, but not best in class. Nissan’s hybrid Pathfinder gets 28 mpg on the highway, 4 less than our coming Subaru Forrester, which has just one engine under the hood to maintain. You won’t find the Nissan name on The U.S. Dept. of Energy’s list for best fuel efficiency  or Automobile Magazine’s list.

But it’s not only ecofreaks, as I refer to myself, to might go for a Leaf. Tech lovers unable to spring for a Tesla, wait for the Model S to come out or — like me! — fit it in their little garages are good Leaf prospects. If you wanted to get in early on EVs, you pretty much had to get a Leaf. Despite its “Innovation that Excites” slogan, Nissan isn’t the automotive industry’s leading edge technology company either.

So how does the Leaf fit with Nissan brand? Is someone considering a Leaf supposed to identify with the Rogue ads where the driver races up a ramp to land on top of a train to … You’ve seen it. What’s my takeaway? How does that fit in the same brand family as world’s leading EV?

If the family fit together, the loaner program would be a great way to get Leaf drivers to look at other Nissan vehicles and hook them on Nissan as their brand because it fits their personal brand values.

Granted, not every company can be Tesla with its brand spanking new and very clean brand image and there’s bound to be a lot of shaking out to come as carmakers decide what to do about the carbon footprint of their cars and manufacturing. Meanwhile, I confess confusion about what message most are trying to send.

 

What’s the Cleantech forecast for 2014?

The Washington Clean Technology Alliance’s annual Crystal Ball Forecast breakfast is always an educational way to kick off a new year. Merrill Lunch Financial Advisor David Beck opened with predictions of a volatile bull market that may extend 10-15 years and three megatrends. The first would be in U.S. innovation leading to energy independence (yes, with fracking). Second will be great market shifts in terms of labor and capital flow with a big rotation from bonds to stocks and quantitative easing (which I had to look up).Expect a mild correction in the first half of 2014. The third trend will be geopolitical including an aging global population and the emergence of a larger global middle class that will want more meat (and everything else).  There likely will be 9.1 billion people on earth by 2050. Beck also mentioned impact investors, a group that didn’t exist 10 years ago, noting that more than half of investors under age 44 invest this way. (There was an interesting article last month on lessons impact investors can learn from microfinancing, if you’re interested.) He was bullish on 2014. 

Next up was Bank of America Merrill Lynch Analyst Krish Sankar focusing primarily on solar whose time, if I may paragraph enormously, is coming, particularly for rooftop solar. One of Sankar’s charts summed up the argument for solar: if you’re paying more than 15 cents per kilowatt hour, go solar. The low, low prices of natural gas will continue to challenge solar adoption, but Sankar believes that will only slow things down, not change the trajectory. I like that. He sees the U.S., Japan and China driving solar adoption, representing a move away from Europe which has led the charge up to this point.

The forecast continued with a panel talking about financing cleantech development here in Washington State starting with Richard Locke from the Wash. State Dept. of Commerce, Todd Myers from the Wash. Policy Center and Brad Boswell, a lobbyist with a keen view into what Olympia may really be capable of doing this year. Spoiler alert: the answer to the last question (for the impatient among us like me!) is very little of significance. The big focus here for me was Todd Myers who outlining the differences in favored climate policies between Democrats and Republicans in Olympia and then quipped “Politicians have a very limited view of the future” before outlining his arguments for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Myers’ blogged about Climate Policy in Washington Jan. 8th This is a push I’m happy to get behind aggressively. Snoqualmie Falls 011

Wrapping up the event, WCTA  CEO Tom Ranken mentioned Sunday’s 60 Minutes The Cleantech Crash segment. I hadn’t seen it, so I pulled it up online when I got back to the office. The piece I respected more, however, was written by Katie Fehrenbacher on Gigaom: What 60 Minutes got right and wrong in its story on the “cleantech crash.” 

What I do know is that the status quo isn’t an option. Unless your definition of relaxation is sitting in a beach chair on a hill watching the oceans rise and warm. So what’s the alternative? Every new industry ever created is littered with the bodies of dead companies and lost investments. Unfortunately, that’s the only way to vet the winners. I’m with Vinod Khosla whose quote ended the 60 Minutes segment:

In fact you need dreamers to stretch. I probably have failed more times in my life than almost anybody I know. But that’s because I’ve tried more things. And I’m not afraid to fail because the consequences of avoiding failure are doing nothing.

Entrepreneurial Opportunities for Environmental Innovation?

In preparation for our first Environmental Innovation Practicum class at the University of Washington tomorrow, I did a little unscientific polling among the regional cleantech community to ask about their environmental priorities, where they feel we most need environmental innovation and where they see the greatest entrepreneurial potential. I also asked for ideas they’d like to see student teams tackle as part of the class — or elsewhere. The results are fun. Of particular interest to me were the intersection of environmental priorities and entrepreneurial potential. In some areas, ranked priority and perceived opportunity line up nicely. In others, not so much.

EIP13Survey

I’ve got a terrific panel talking about this tomorrow afternoon. Meanwhile, I just wanted to share.

 

Lean Course Development?

So much about the Lean Startup model appeals, particularly the idea of testing a minimum viable product and letting customers guide further product development. If only it could work for developing classes.

The disconnect struck me as I added the link to John Sechrest‘s bio to my class syllabus recently. John wears a lot of hats: Project Director at Seattle Angel Conference; Co-organizer at Lean Startup Seattle; Global Facilitator at Startup Weekend. On my syllabus, he’s Lean Startup Guest Speaker and I’m thrilled to have him coming to class to talk about about the lean startup model. Completely redesigning my class has been a good deal more work than I remembered from creating it in the first place years ago. If there’s a way to a minimum viable product approach to developing a product for university credit, I haven’t figured it out. Seems to me it has to be fully baked on Day One. The testing comes during the first class (sorry Fall Quarter class, you are the test market). Only students in subsequent quarters can benefit from lessons learned Sept. – Dec.

Yet maybe that is as close an academic equivalent can get to a lean model. The big difference is that, unlike those innovator customers willingly trying out something new, the students didn’t opt in; they’re stuck with it.

Of course the other big difference is that I’m not searching for a business model; I’m just developing a product. The business model belongs to the University. Many would argue that secondary education could use a new business model. But that — thank heavens! — is not my job. I just have a couple classes to teach.

5 Tips for Any Business Pitch

There is some absolutely amazing cleantech innovation happening in the Pacific Northwest! I know because last Thursday, I was in Portland and then on Friday in Seattle helping the regional teams competing in the CleantechOpen improve their pitches. Some of the teams were innovating in areas I’ve come to expect from entrepreneurs in our region. Others took me completely by surprise. It was a delight to meet all of them.

I found myself giving many of the teams similar advice to strengthen their pitches, so I thought I’d share the same tips here:

Know your audience.  This is imperative. Find out who’ll be in the audience, what they’re likely to know about your subject and what matters to them.

Grab my attention immediately! You can do this with a bold description of what you’re doing or with a powerful outline of the customer’s pain. Don’t lose that opportunity to make your first impression count.

Convince me there’s a problem and it’s big enough to matter.  Only one team out of the 11 I saw had no need to strengthen their story here. In that case, the need is so glaring obvious it wasn’t worth wasting pitch time addressing. If there’s a problem but it’s not big, you’re talking about a lifestyle business, which is fine if that’s what you want. Otherwise, this is your chance to prove this work is important.

Convince me you have a viable, working solution. I want to understand exactly what you’ve built/are building, precisely how it addresses that market need you just uncovered in talking about the problem AND that you are the team to do this. Recognizing you have competitors and acknowledging their strengths is part of this argument as well.

Convince me you know who’ll pay for your solution. It’s absolutely fine to have a number of potential target customer segments you genuinely believe will want what you’re creating it. But show me which one has the greatest initial potential because they really want this and are willing to pay good money for it.

This also marked my first trip by train to Portland, a ride between two renovated historic train stations. I had to be a tourist and snap this picture of Seattle’s gloriously bright King St. Station. Fun. IMG_1784Thanks for saving these landmarks, Seattle and Portland!

What I learned from summer school

All summer, I’ve been blogging about the topics we’ve covered in my undergraduate entrepreneurial marketing class at UW as a way to 1) get back into blogging which I’d abandoned a year or so ago and 2) say goodbye to the content as I’m completely redesigning the class. It was an educational 10 weeks for me. Perhaps what I learned can be of use to other would-be bloggers as well:

#1 Twice a week is doable! I wouldn’t have believed it before doing it for a few months, but I can keep a twice weekly publishing schedule if I figure out in advance what I want to talk about.

#2 Lectures make for crummy blog fodder. Every single one contains too much information, especially for someone like me who’s guilty of cramming enormous amounts of information into every class. I’m suddenly much more sympathetic to my students! I started out trying to capture the highlights of lectures, but the posts were still long and time-consuming to write. Then I tried focusing on only half of the class plan to cut down the content I was trying to cover. That still proved to be too much material. Finally, I tried tips from a class — the way I might wrap up a class day. But that lacked context. For the last few, as I was admittedly getting bored with my own assignment and looking forward to the end of the quarter, I went back into reporting mode and looked for updated, free resources to share with readers. Meanwhile, I went back to an exercise I did when I very first started The Clarity Blog and intentionally made notes about how some of my favorite bloggers were constructing their posts rather than focusing on their content. From them, I re-learned that …

#3 Simple is much better. My favorite bloggers, those who weren’t professional bloggers, kept a narrow focus, which made the counsel really targeted. Very good. This is now my objective.

The other thing Summer School on The Clarity Blog did for me had nothing to do with blogging. It helped me re-evaluate every subject as I redesigned the class. I still have a tremendous amount of work to do, but thanks to UW’s wonderful schedule, I still have several weeks of summer left to get ready and still enjoy those dog days.

IMG_1136So now my old content can sail off into the sunset on Puget Sound. And I can test myself on a new commitment: two short, useful posts a week.

Guess we’ll all see if I can do it.

 

5 Tips for Managing Entrepreneurial Marketing

Summer School on the ClarityBlog: 17th Class

Today would be the last “regular” class in the Entrepreneurial Marketing course. The last two classes being dedicated to student final presentations. So this is a wrapup day, an “if you remember nothing else …” day, a day for students to do their evaluations of the course. We’ll leave that last part out, but here’s the rest.

As we talked about first thing this quarter, “doing” marketing for brand new companies differs significantly than doing the same work for established brands. For entrepreneurs, there’s never enough people, time or money to do what they’d really like to do or maybe even need to do.

On top of that, the stakes are high. A failed launch could mean failure as a company.

About half of the students who take my class are in the Entrepreneurship certificate program at UW. They may wind up doing the marketing for the startup they’re dreaming of creating or have already created, but it’s just as likely that they’ll bring in another team member to do it. So at the close of the quarter, I help them get a look at the function and activities from the manager’s perspective and offer five tips for managing entrepreneurial marketing.

#1 Know Your Customer. I long ago lost count of the entrepreneurs I’ve counseled who had what they thought was an amazing idea but could find no traction. The most frequent reason was that either that the customer didn’t genuinely want or need the solution or that the entrepreneur had failed to find the true customer. Solve a real customer problem. Knowing the customer isn’t a task that should be out-sourced. Knowing the customer also isn’t marketing strategy assignment. It’s ongoing – a daily task for as long as you’re in business.

#2 Be Remarkable. Seth Goden had it right in “The Purple Cow.” When there’s something remarkable about a business – amazing products, stellar customer service, a unique delivery system or trailblazing customer engagement – everybody talks about it. And if everybody is talking about your business, you have to expend a lot fewer precious resources doing it yourself. Find the inherent drama in your offering and put it in the spotlight.

#3 Position Yourself to Win. Positioning helps your customers decide to buy from you.

#4 Spend Smart. Make sure you know what you expect the return on investment/effort to be for every activity and that you can measure the results. Reserve a small amount of your budget – maybe 10% – to truly experiment. Track the results from those experiments, too. If something’s not working, dump it. Don’t wait. Redirect the budget to activities that are getting the results you wanted.

#5 Learn From Radical Marketers.  I won’t be using the Radical Marketing book this coming year, but I’ll still recommend it because there are great stories in it and great lessons. The authors focus on ten lessons. I focus on seven:

  • Get face-to-face with the customer. Don’t rely on hands-off research.
  • Love and respect your customer. As Frederick G. Crane states in Marketing for Entrepreneurs: “The actual purpose of an enterprise is … the creation and retention of satisfied customers.”
  • Create a community around your brand. Radical marketers were doing this long before social media emerged, but now that we have social networks, following this advice is more feasible than ever.
  • Constantly rethink the marketing and promotional mix.  Always ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and what you could do differently, more effectively, better.
  • Be true to the brand. If you haven’t already, go figure out your brand’s personality traits and values. Combined with your positioning, these are amazing screens you can use to test new ideas to make sure they’re brand appropriate. Don’t be lemming and follow a crowd. Do what’s right for your brand.
  • Hire only passionate missionaries.  The team you build around you is so important. I love this idea that every hire should be someone as excited about what you’re doing as you are and just as willing to be an evangelist for the business. No duds allowed.
  • Never stop learning. I hope this one applies to everyone, everywhere because if you didn’t a) life would be so dull and b) you’d be so doomed to failure.

That’s it. I hope you’ve learned a thing or two and had a good time while you were at it. Best of luck to all UW’s summer grads!

Common Marketing Plan Mistakes

Summer School on the ClarityBlog: 16th Class

By this point in the quarter, student teams have just days to wrap up their marketing plan assignments and get ready to present the highlights to the entrepreneurs themselves.  In an attempt to help them not lose points on stupid stuff, I run through a list of the most common mistakes I’ve seen over the years – mistakes they may yet have time to avoid. Some of the most common mistakes are common outside the classroom as well.

  1. The plan isn’t built on research. Research is the foundation beneath the entire plan. Base your ideas as much as you can what you know rather than what you just think.
  2. The position could belong to anyone. Positioning stakes a competitive claim in the present. It’s a bold assertion of what makes the business, the offering, unique. If you craft a position for your business and can substitute anyone else’s name for yours in the statement and have it ring true, go back to the whiteboard. You haven’t yet figured out your true position.
  3. The SWOT isn’t a SWOT. A SWOT analysis prioritizes what really matters most in setting a strategy for marketing the brand. It must accurately represents what’s most important in looking at the brand’s own strengths and weaknesses (top half of the SWOT) and the market place’s opportunities and threats (bottom half). Intelligent planning has to address all four quadrants.
  4. Tactical plans are brainstorms on paper. Getting creative is fun. But the point of an action plan is to make an impact on the business. What impact do you expect from every tactic you’re planning for your own business? My advice is always to do a few things really well. Focus particularly on the ones that play well with others.
  5. The budget’s incomplete. Funding marketing the programs is tough for young companies. Finding money later to make up for something not being included in the budget might be impossible. Be thorough.

How does your plan fare?

 
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