Monthly Archives: March 2013

United Airlines, Mom’s Missing Jewelry, and the Asymmetry of Customer Feedback

Dad used to say “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it”.  Mom prefers the double-positive version.

What if people spent the same energy to praise good deeds as they do publicly complaining?

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Someone rub you the wrong way?  Got your knickers in a knot?  Well, post it somewhere and see if you can get it to go viral.

It’s easy to rage publicly over real or perceived slights.  We can turn millions against a company, deserved or not, while we bloviate in anonymity with no repercussions.  It’s like punching the schoolyard bully in the face remotely from your basement. And generally, it’s how a lot of people tend to roll.

Well, sometimes companies actually do good things due to someone’s actions; unfortunately people seem to be less motivated to share when things turn out well – – isn’t that what we’re entitled to? – – so you’re not likely to hear about it.  And so the story of United Airlines, my mom and the lost jewelry.  But first a quick bit of context.

Remember the ‘United Broke My Guitar’ guy?  Back in 2009 United Airlines broke his guitar and refused to compensate him for it.  In frustration, he posted a song on YouTube (13 million hits), wrote a book, and became something of a travelers’ cause célèbre.  Ultimately, of course, United realized it had screwed up, rightfully made him whole, and learned a painful lesson about ‘an ounce of medicine’ or something like that.

This weekend my 82 year old mother flew into town and discovered she had lost her jewelry bag.  On her return trip, since she of course gets to the airport 4 hours early, she had time to check United lost & found.  Lo and behold, not only did United have it, but the jewelry bag was immediately returned to her, intact and untouched!

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It apparently had slipped out of her bag in the overhead compartment on the way over.  This means not only did all the passengers, staff, and cleaning crew ignore a temptation, but somehow THE SYSTEM WORKED:  It found its way to Lost and Found, was properly coded into the system, and a United representative was actually able and willing to locate it and immediately give it back to its owner.  Wow.

I don’t know about you, but I lose more than my fair share of things and I NEVER get anything back.  And this was a jewelry bag within a complex system with thousands of flights and hundreds of thousands of passengers daily.  (Full disclosure:  it was costume jewelry – – Mom’s been to the rodeo a few times – – but they didn’t know that).

This must happen with some regularity.  So why don’t you generally see companies praised publicly for excellent customer service?  Mom has been a professional pianist for over 60 years and is in fair voice, so she could do her version of Guitar Guy on YouTube, but she has a full schedule of 35 students a week and like all of us, is too busy.

I also suspect that praising a big company just isn’t cool; you’re not sticking it to the Man when you say something positive.  This will be just one of many transactions of this United representative, the majority of which likely won’t have as happy an ending.  And that’s too bad.

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Maybe the readers of this post could forward it to a few people as a reminder that sometimes good things happen because someone gave extra effort, and that it wouldn’t be so bad to send out an Attaboy once in a while.   See if you can get it picked up.  You might just make someone’s day.  Here’s a little primer on how to get started.

Butterfly Bakery: Heading back into the cocoon

Today’s news brings us the cautionary tale of Butterfly Bakery, which is no doubt trying to find a cocoon to hide in after an onslaught of mostly self-inflicted pain.  This is primarily a lesson on the importance of transparency, authenticity and speed in the age of 24/7 public scrutiny.

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The short story:  Butterfly Bakery, a small Clifton, NJ baker of special baked goods (e.g. sugar-free, no sugar added, gluten-free, etc), is suffering through its 15 minutes of fame courtesy of the FDA, which forced it to close its doors after discovering that sugar and fat levels in several of its muffin and cookie products were well above what was claimed on the label.  Selected products had 3x the stated levels of sugar and 2x the indicated amount of fat.  This has led to some explanatory statements on the BB Facebook page and caused the charming looking website to be taken down.  The Twitter feed has also stopped.

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So — what’s the big deal?  Isn’t this just another case of the government unfairly picking on the little guys while ignoring ‘big business’?  After all, only 3 products of 45 were cited.

Well, yes and no — but mostly no.

– it turns out that the original FDA complaint is almost 2 years old, and that BB was well aware of the issues.  Here is an excerpt from their Facebook statement:  “Butterfly Bakery, Inc. acknowledges the claims in the FDA press release dated March 13, 2013. Butterfly Bakery voluntarily entered into a consent decree and has been working with the FDA and a team of technical and regulatory experts since May 31, 2011, to improve its processes and ensure compliance with all Butterfly Bakery products”. [bold added]

– May 2011?  Based on comments on their FB page, their customer base was clearly not aware of anything, and they are now suitably outraged.  2 years is plenty of time to reformulate, repackage, explain to customers, and flush out all inventory.  An FDA inquiry would seem to have been a strong hint to watch nutritional claims closely.

A matter of health – these products draw heavily from diabetics and celiac sufferers, for whom safe, tasty treats are often difficult to find.  BB’s products apparently tasted great, which is now not surprising since that’s largely what sugar and fat are for.  So whether intentional or not, BB enticed customers with better taste, while simultaneously putting them in danger because of misleading labeling.  This is not just a case of ‘I’m mad you didn’t tell me’, it’s a case of putting consumers at risk.

You never get a 2nd chance to make a first impression – – Butterfly Bakery has now gotten its first national publicity, which is hugely negative, and they will forever be associated with this scandal.  They will immediately forfeit retail distribution and may have trouble regaining it. But perhaps most importantly, they have violated the trust of their most important constituency – their customers, which may be impossible to restore.

Collateral damage – – other unrelated Butterfly Bakeries have already had to start issuing disclaimers that this doesn’t apply to them.  But clearly potential customers will have pause before buying from them.

The upshot:  Hindsight is 20/20, but Butterfly Bakery could have positioned themselves most positively back in 2011 if they had acknowledged some inaccuracies in labeling, offered refunds, and pledged to a new level of scrutiny.  They would have been seen as being committed to their customers.  Now the opposite is true, and their options are limited.  At least they have not made the mistake of trying to fight hand-to-hand on Facebook (see Applebee’s case).

Natural Products Expo West – My Top 10 Observations

Natural Products Expo West, just completed in Anaheim, bills itself as the largest natural and organic trade show in the world.  At 1 million+ square feet, almost 2500 exhibitors and 63,000 attendees, it is certainly large by any measure.  Having just finished walking most of those 1 million square feet, while my feet are temporarily elevated I have assembled an (unscientific) list of 10 noteworthy observations from the show (in no particular order).

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1) Gluten-Free – – sure, it’s been a reliable presence for years, but it now seems that every other product at the show carried a gluten-free claim.  For the most part, the products were delicious.  Clearly this trend is maturing nicely and is here to stay.

2) Kale!   Yes, kale.  In all of its green, seaweed-tasting glory, manifested in all manner of baked goods, chips, and more.  Let’s check back in about 3 years to see how this trend hangs in there.

3) Bars, bars, bars and more bars.  Energy, fruit equivalence, satiety, muscle-enhancing, alertness, virility – – you name it, there’s a bar for it.  Conservatively more than 100 entries.  The good news: most of them actually taste very good.  The bad news:  there’s not enough shelf space in the world for all of them to survive.

4) Jerky – long a pariah at natural foods (aka aspiring vegan) shows, the snacks-with-parents segment was alive and well at Expo West 2013.  Beef, turkey, chicken, bison, and many other animals as well as faux-meat soy product, this was a year where the trucker target was well-served.  A regular Von Dutch treat, if you will.

5) the non-GMO conversation – Whole Foods changed the conversation at Expo West.  By announcing its commitment to labelling all products that contain genetically modified organisms by 2018, WF elevated this topic from a subject you might bring up to show off your Euro-knowledge, to a regular (functional) water cooler staple.  Everyone was talking about it; this announcement could be the tipping point in establishing non-GMO as a mainstream desired consumer benefit.

6) fewer ‘free from’ claims – with the obvious exception of non-GMO, there didn’t seem to be as many ‘free from’ or ‘less’ (fat, calories, sugar, etc) claims.  Instead, it was all about what was in the foods – – whether protein, antioxidants, minerals, or any of a lot of other things.

7) Chips – apparently, at this show if a food was left unattended, someone came along and zapped it with the chip gun.  How many things can you make into a chip?  In addition to the now-mainstream PopChips, there were also falafel chips, pineapple coconut chips, chia chips, cookie chips, spinach chips, lentil chips, and yes, Virginia, there are kale chips too — lots of them.

8) High-end chocolates – – right up there in abundance with chips and nutrition bars, it seemed that every time you turned around, some smiling young person was shoving a piece of $7/bar chocolate in your face (which of course, you were too polite to refuse).  The venerable gourmet segment pioneered by the likes of Lindt, now goes for $2-3/oz (and more) after being reinvented about 10 years ago with the unique entries from companies like Vosges (e.g. bacon, chile inclusions) and competitors have been piling in ever since.  Mostly excellent products; again the sad part is that not all will survive.

9) Raw foods – this is an increasingly common theme for many new natural/organic products (and companies); it’s about foods that are the ultimate in closeness to nature – – unprocessed and uncooked.  In a variety of different products – -and candidly there were a few I’m not sure I’d ingest before a 4 hour flight.  The concept was really brought to life for me when a spokesperson for a nut and seed bar (with raw chia seeds!) explained that if he unwrapped his bar and planted it, it would grow.  And all those childhood fears of orange trees growing in my stomach suddenly came rushing back.

10) Naturally enhanced – – I’m talking about the incredible variety of beverages (and just maybe also about some of the attendees).  In a continuing crusade to provide the world with healthier and perhaps more politically correct alternatives to sugar/HFCS-sweetened drinks, Expo West really came through.  Coconut or oatmeal (or chia) based, probiotic, macrobiotic, kombucha, it goes on and on and on – and this doesn’t even include the supplements.  Yowza.

The only downside to the show was the sheer number, depth and quality of displays.  Would have loved another few days – well, there’s always next year.

Orapup — A newfangled innovation to tackle dog breath — and have fun doing it

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Orabrush is in the business of cleaning human tongues.  And they are growing their business by doing a fantastic job with their social media effort.  But this isn’t about Orabrush – it’s about Orapup – – a line extension designed for guys like Nigel – – and about how company assets can be creatively leveraged to create new revenue streams.

First, about Orabrush – – their marketing effort, like your breath should be after using their product, is fresh, cool and quite personal.  If you want a quick whiff, check out their website:  cheeky home-grown and user-generated videos featuring a guy who looks like Neil Patrick Harris (a zillion YouTube views), not so tongue-in-cheek product claims, and a lot of we-don’t-take-ourselves-too-seriously fun.  They have a counter of tongue brushes sold online; at the time of this writing it was at 2,982,076 – so if you were lucky, maybe you were able to watch it hit 3 million.

So how does a company like this innovate?  Well, in some ways just what you’d expect; in others, the opposite.

They currently have a name, a product, a following, an online presence and retail distribution.  In coming up with Orapup, they certainly leveraged technology, their name, and their online fans (who suggested the product in the first place).  But because they can’t leverage a distribution system (Orabrush is not set up for pet channel distribution), rather than try to use media spending to first drive retail distribution for Orapup, they’ve done the reverse:  in-depth data analysis of focused online ads to tweak the marketing formula dynamically, then focusing local online media to efficiently drive sales where there is distribution, growing organically from there.  Ad Age did a good writeup; you can read it here.  Love their video (the first 15 seconds are worth the price of admission):

Orapup has taken a decidedly modern approach:  Crowdsourcing the idea, crowd funding (they raised an initial $60k and conducted research at the same time), generating buzz (and demand) by taking pre-orders online (they got 60,000 online orders to generate $750k revenue before shipping the first product), and THEN pulling the trigger on shipping product and driving retail distribution.  In this way, they’ve leveraged their loyal followers, created pent-up demand, covered some of the upfront investment, and delivered a product that has demonstrated demand.  All while mitigating the typical risks of a new product (stale product on shelves, etc.)

This is an excellent example of a few things:

‘Traditional’ marketing is an endangered species – – sometimes it’s best to avoid the tried and true – -marketers need to creatively leverage the evolving array of available resources and experiment with new approaches.

Empowering consumers to have a voice in product development can reduce development time/cost/risk (and avoid aimless R&D safaris) – – in addition to creating an enthusiastic group of advocates.

Let the numbers be your friend – – by constantly monitoring, analyzing and adjusting, marketers can optimize their marketing mix and quickly respond to marketplace changes

Orapup is a fun product that has extended the Orabrush franchise with low risk, manageable investment, and arguably a nice shot of positive buzz that is consistent with the overall fun brand persona.

It is a great example of how to creatively innovate.

Anheuser-Busch: Guilty until Proven Innocent?

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Was it just a few weeks ago that Maker’s Mark made headlines when it reversed its plan to reduce its alcohol level by 3%?  Well, now Anheuser-Busch is expending resources to deal with a similar product quality perception situation; the difference here is that this story is not of its own making (Maker’s Mark had announced a planned change before changing their minds).

Social media and 24/7 coverage have made companies’ reputations more at risk than ever — and while it can take as little as a few well-placed keystrokes to ignite a PR firestorm, it often costs much more to avert or manage a crisis.

A-B Beers

A series of class action lawsuits has been filed in several states, accusing A-B of adding water to 10 of its beers, lowering alcohol content to a level below what is claimed on the label.  The lawsuits are reportedly based on information from former employees at the company.

The now not-surprising effect has been widespread negative buzz for A-B, which they have had to deal with immediately.  So far, A-B has denounced the lawsuits in a statement and posted test results and notes to their customers on Facebook and Twitter, as well as a full-page ad that ran today in numerous large newspapers.

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Even this modest level of expenditure is no small potatoes for an issue that may well be 100% unfounded.  In fact, other companies caught in the same situation have spent significantly to manage the message (Taco Bell spent millions in 2011 to tell its side of the story when accused of mislabeling beef content, a suit that was eventually dismissed).  In the current climate of ‘post first, ask questions later’, when caught in this sort of negative story, companies are often well-advised to react immediately and with strength – – regardless of what the facts may eventually bear out.  The alternative is to passively let the brand message be controlled by social media, which is not really an option.

These days, brands would be wise to budget some contingency funds to deal with the possibility of such a media-enabled drive-by.  In fact, it could be argued that Anheuser-Busch should be more aggressive now to get ahead of public perception.  It would not be surprising to see them dial up the spending in the near future.

Nigel has just very astutely asked me: what happens if they’re actually found guilty?  Well, if that happens, as Anheuser-Busch InBev has a market cap of around $150 billion, it wouldn’t be long before the company feels pain the billions rather than millions.  That’s the difference between being accused of doing something bad, and actually doing something bad.