Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Big Ten Network

Some of you may have seen the numerous articles over the past year discussing the Big Ten Conference’s Big Ten Network (BTN) and its public battle with cable companies over distribution. This past fall fellow Ross MBA-candidates Matt Mace, Guangcheng “Gary” Dong, and I worked on a project investigating the BTN’s distribution strategy and making recommendations. What we discovered was pretty interesting – especially since we were able to confirm why some cable companies did not want to add the network under BTN’s current terms, and why BTN was pursuing a strategy that was causing so much conflict.

The Big Ten Network (BTN) is a television network primarily covering college sporting events of schools within the Big Ten Conference (BTC). It provides national broadcasts of college football, basketball, and other sports content for cable and satellite television subscribers. Besides sports programs, BTN broadcasts academic programming from Big Ten Conference universities. Most of the content is exclusive, meaning it will not be shown live simultaneously on other television channels. The BTN is a joint venture between the BTC and Fox Cable Networks.

Although most BTC athletic events will exclusively be shown on the BTN, the Big Ten Conference did recently renew their contract with ESPN/ABC Sports, owned by the Walt Disney Company. This contract is a $100M/yr, 10-year deal that includes rights to show 25 football and 56 men's basketball games per season as well as 100 women's basketball and volleyball games over the 10-year period. It also includes rights to show the championship games of the Big Ten and the Big Ten women's basketball tournament.

Big Ten Member Universities value the BTN as a marketing and recruiting tool for new students. Along with a $1B agreement with ESPN and ABC to broadcast games, the BTN will allow BTC Universities to promote themselves to a nationwide audience and increase awareness among possible academic and athletic recruits. The proceeds from the BTN are divided equally among the 11 BTC member universities. Additional funds for athletics, enables other money to flow to research, the arts and other scholastic endeavors. These schools are seeing some big money.

The Issue
The BTN, launched in August 2007, has had a significant amount of success achieving distribution deals with both satellite and smaller, local cable companies. However, it has struggled forming agreements with large cable distributors like Comcast. The main argument from these cable companies is that the BTN is trying to sell its content to a national audience, when it might be better received by a more-regional audience in the Big Ten states. To understand their side of the argument, we contacted the alumni associations of the eleven BTC universities and discovered close to 87% of Big Ten alumni live in the U.S. live in Big Ten states. Interesting.

Another beef the cable companies have with BTW is the network requests subscription companies to pay average subscriber fees of $1.10 for customers within the eight Big Ten states, and $0.10 for all other customers. Since not all cable television subscribers will want Big Ten programming, it is not in the best interest of cable network to bill their customers for fees demanded by the BTN. On the other hand, it will hurt the cable company’s bottom line to simply absorb the fees BTN is requesting. Cable companies like Comcast that refuse to pay across the board subscriber fees to BTN are asking for the flexibility to add BTN to a special sports tier, for which subscribers could request as an optional package for additional fees. Through absorbing BTN fees, cable companies stand to lose out on millions of dollars. For example, Comcast has around 4 million cable television subscribers in Big Ten Conference states. The BTN fees for these subscribers would cost Comcast $4.4 million per month, or $52.8M per year. Comcast earned a net income of almost $2.5B in 2006, so the $52.8M subscribe fee to BTN would reduce net income by almost 3% for BTC states alone. Another issue raised by cable companies against BTN is the amount of the fees compared with other content providers. BTN requires an average fee of $1.10 per subscriber, the third highest fee on basic cable today. Only ESPN at $3.00 per-subscriber and TNT at $1.26 per-subscriber have higher fees. The high subscription fee is in question since BTN has a much more limited fan base/lower demand than ESPN and TNT.

Another reason why many subscription television distributors have not welcomed putting BTN on their expanded basic packages is a question about the value and quality of the sports programming being delivered by the BTN. Some sports analysts believe the BTC is weaker, or not as competitive, as other major college sports conferences. They argue more powerful conferences include the Pac-10 on the West Coast, the SEC in the South, or the ACC in the East. Why? Through October 17, 2007, the BTC only had two of its football teams in the Top 25 national rankings, although historically the BTC has five or six of its football teams in the Top 25 rankings. The commission of the BTC has even suggested adding additional universities to the BTC to help make the conference more competitive, ultimately helping market the BTN. It’d be interesting to investigate how this would bring more revenue to the network and whether or not this action would have each BTC school seeing even less money from the BTN.

Subscription providers are not the only channel members who are experiencing conflict with the BTN. The end customers (fans) are becoming disgruntled with BTN since some BTC football games are being carried exclusively on its network instead of allowing local channels to carry regional events. This creates a channel conflict for some Big Ten Sports fans. Many Big Ten fans subscribe to cable television systems who have not agreed to distribute BTN programming. These fans have missed some historic football games such as the upset of the University of Michigan by Appalachian State at the beginning of the season. This conflict is similar to other exclusive sports content providers such as the NFL Network.

After better understanding why there is so much channel conflict when it comes to BTN offerings, our team created some recommendations for the BTN. We determined BTN needs to change its subscriber fee practices to build a better relationship with its distributors and end customers. Consumers who are missing game broadcasts are upset with cable companies and the BTN for not resolving subscriber fee issues. The loss of brand equity among these sports fans is potentially outweighing any revenue gain that BTN and BTC schools might receive from the holdout with cable companies. The public battle between BTN and Comcast may also be discouraging potential students from attending Big Ten schools or convincing parents a Big Ten school is not where they want to send their child. Would you want your kid to attend a member school of the BTN after witnessing such a public pissing match between the network and cable companies?

Distribution Channel Alternatives/Recommendation
Currently, the Big Ten Network is receiving around $111M annually through its deals with various satellite and cable television distributors. However, due to the channel conflict –and- not obtaining some key deals with large providers, BTN needs to determine if their current strategy is the optimal one. How many subscribers can it realistically expect to obtain? How do you resolve conflict within your distribution network to ensure relationships with future business partners and potential school recruits are not compromised. One option for the BTN to resolve channel conflict with distribution providers is through changing its practice of across-the-board fees for all subscribers. The BTN could reduce the cost so cable companies could easily absorb the additional fee. Making this change would require BTN to redo multi-year contracts that have already been established, but the benefits of signing up 100% of available cable systems could outweigh that lost revenue. In looking at this financially, if BTN were to lower its cost per month per subscriber to $.03 and $.37 respectively to garner deals with Comcast and Charter Communications, it would lose out on $35M per year from its current deals.

A second option is for BTN to change its fee structure from a per-subscriber model to an active-subscriber model (i.e. allow subscription providers to offer BTN on a separate sports tier). If the BTN offered optional programming to consumers, instead of $1.10 per subscriber in BTC states, the fee might be four or five times that amount. For the purpose of analysis, we investigated what BTN would bring in if they were to charge $5/month to active-subscribers. Based on the number of Big Ten Conference alumni living in the U.S. as well as potential Big Ten fans who did not attend a BTC school, there might be a subscriber base of less than 1 million. Note, this does not include businesses that might be interested in carrying the network. Based on 803,473 subscribers at a $5 per month subscriber fee (i.e. $60/yr), the BTN stands to earn $63M less than it is presently earning through subscription T.V. deals.

A third option for the BTN is to bypass the cable and satellite companies and broadcast all their content through the Internet. Consumers could purchase content directly through BTN, with a fee structure for unlimited annual, unlimited monthly, or game specific content options. Cable companies would be in favor of this option, since consumers would need to purchase high-speed cable service in order to view BTN content in this model. BTC universities would favor this option as well, since games could be featured on a global basis instead of limited to a U.S. based audience. However, this option is unlikely to add the revenues BTN requires given the number of high-speed cable subscribers that are potentially BTC sports fans. We discovered the estimated revenues for Internet subscribers are $7M, far below anticipated revenues of $110M for cable television subscribers. Also, this revenue number does not account for the fact BTN would need to invest monies into its website in order to be able to support showing live games, subscriber fees, etc. BTN may want to investigate offering limited content on its website to drive consumer traffic from the sports enthusiasts and fanatics. They could also use the website to drive additional revenue through online ads/sponsorships. However, they should not rely on this as a primary income source.

One final alternative would be for the BTN to offer Pay-Per-View for each of their games. Based only 9.9% of adults in the U.S. watching college football games on television and only 5.5% of adults in the U.S. watching college basketball on T.V, we believe pursuing this strategy would only limit distribution of the channel and minimize revenues. After analyzing various distribution options, it appears the Big Ten Network is presently pursuing a revenue maximizing strategy. Thus, reducing its requested subscription fees or offering the network as a separate sports tier is not recommended as revenues would be drastically reduced.

Our recommendation to BTN is to maintain current deals with subscription T.V. services. We also advise them to end their public battle with Comcast (and other large providers) to earn a more positive reputation. The negative press from this fight only frustrates fans and paints a poor picture of the network with other distributors and potential Big Ten Conference recruits. Also, based on our analysis, if Comcast and Charter Communications never sign up to carry the BTN, the BTN is still better off sticking with their current strategy rather than reducing its rates and renegotiating agreements. Although not all BTC fans currently have access to all BTN games in their homes, in our opinion, those who desperately want to see a game and don’t have the Big Ten Network will go to a local bar or a friend’s house. Additionally, some die-hard fans may even switch subscription television providers in order to have the convenience of the BTN at home. As a result, we do not see a large amount of conflict occurring with fans. As a future solution, BTN may want to investigate offering games on its website on a subscription basis for fans wanting to view games at home without access to BTN carriers. This would only enhance the BTN’s relationship with end consumers and offer an additional distribution channel solely controlled by the BTN.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A few of my favorite things...

So in the spirit of the holidays, I decided this entry should be about a few of my favorite products. I know it's not a critical assessment of a particular brand/ad campaign/product like most of my entries. But this should give you an idea of products I purchase/use on a regular basis and some tidbits about me as a consumer. Many of these would make great Christmas gifts for your friends/family/significant other BTW...

Wrapping Paper - Old Navy. Who knew, right? For any of you crafty types out there, not only does Old Navy have cool/trendy/contemporary/modern prints, but their paper is nice and thick, making for a perfect wrapping job every time. They don't have any traditional looks (i.e. metallic, shiny, Christmas paper) if you want an elegant, frilly gift you'll have to go somewhere else. But I have to say they make the coolest packages for birthdays and other celebrations. All they need now is some slick ribbon and they'd be my one destination for gift wrap supplies. And if they only sold their paper, boxes, etc. online...well then I'd probably have a problem :)

Candles - Method's Peppermint Vanilla - You may know my affection for Method from one of my earlier blog entries. This is yet another reason why I am loyal to the brand...Peppermint Vanilla. Only found during the holiday season, this candle is clean burning and makes my house smell clean and fresh. I burn candles quite often - they're especially warm and comforting in the evenings after a long day at work. And this is my regular stand-by. If only it were a year round product offering...And Method I'd also love it if those peppermint vanilla aroma beads were sold in their own containers all year round.
Hot Chocolate - Vosges Haut Chocolat's Aztec Elixir- I'm not really a sweets person, but this is one of my winter addictions. A wonderful blend of thick, rich chocolate, warmth and spice, you won't mind paying ~$1/oz for this hot chocolate to satisfy your cravings. This hot chocolate is a blend of ancho & chipotle chillies (a little heat down your throat), ceylon cinnamon, madagascar vanilla bean, cornmeal (great texture), and dark chocolate. And all you need is a little bit. Kiss those watery powders you thought were hot chocolate good bye!

Flavoring - Napa Valley Harvest White Truffle Oil - If you're looking for a special touch to add to a holiday dish, this truffle oil is fantastic. My favorite way to have this is with oven roasted potatoes and a touch of fresh parmesan. To make oven roasted potatoes, slice potatoes into thin rounds. Then toss with 2 TB olive oil, fresh cracked pepper, and salt. Spread the potatoes out to be ~1 layer thick on a cookie sheet and bake at 450 for ~40-45 minutes, turning once. The last 10 minutes drizzle the potatoes with truffle oil and sprinkle on some fresh parmesan (use a veggie peeler to get nice chunks). This oil is also particularly good in soups and fresh steamed veggies like asparagus. (Can you tell I love cooking?)

Lotion - Bath & Body Works Vanilla Bean Noel Body Cream - I normally don't purchase many scented lotions since I think they interfere with my perfume -and- many of them don't really make my skin feel moisturized. However, when the winter scents start showing up at Bath & Body Works, I stock up on my favorite body cream - Vanilla Bean Noel. What I like about this scent is it's light, not overpowering, and reminds me of fresh sugar cookies. And it makes my skin feel soft and rejuvinated. It's obviously popular with others as well...after the holidays are over you can often find this on eBay selling at premium prices.

Jeans - Joe's Jeans - Being 5'5", I tend to have issues with a lot of jeans brands since I can't find something that fits me in all the right places. If it fits my small waist, the rear end is too tight. Or if it's a good fit up top, the pants are entirely too long. When I found my first pair of Joe's Provocateur fit jeans, I was in love. It was a perfect fit all around...soft, comfortable, flattering, ideal length. At most stores I can look for regular, long, short, or petite lengths. But half the time a petite is too short if I wear a low heel (or they don't fit me as well as a regular), and the short length is sometimes too long. When you constantly have to pay for hemming it gets really annoying. Why is it men can order jeans in lengths and women can't?

Women's Shoes - Charles David - My closet is well-stocked with a variety of Charles David's traditional leather stilettos (seen below). This shoe is so versatile. It can be worn to work with a pair of slacks or a skirt and then put back on with a pair of jeans to go out in the evening. Not only is the styling classic and flattering, but the shoes are impeccably made. The soft, durable leather holds up to everyday wear -and- helps make the shoes pretty darn comfortable for heels. They're well worth their $150-on-up price tag.

Stereo Accessory - Apple Airport Basestation- I have a particular affection for useful/cool gadgets and the Apple Airport Basestation tops my list. If you have your entire music collection on your PC, you would probably prefer to play your music over your stereo speakers...after all computer speakers leave much to be desired. This little gadget by Apple is the ideal solution. It's perfect for parties, as you can wirelessly stream a special play list to your stereo via iTunes. And I love to use it while working around the house - I can hear my music all over. The only thing I wish is I could also get it to play internet radio stations (like Pandora). Maybe in an upgraded model...

Monday, November 26, 2007

Is Yours Here? Dell's Holiday "Wish"

So...does celebrity advertising really work? And will virtual "begging for money" get you to your end goal? Better yet, if you have a celebrity do the begging for you, will you fare better than just asking yourself? Dell is hoping for success with this concept with their recently launched holiday campaign called “Wish.” The Wish campaign includes print ads, videos, a series of television commercials directing customers to and a temporary Dell store in New York’s Times Square.

While watching football games over the holiday weekend, I saw the Dell T.V. commercial starring Burt Reynolds several times. But the commercial itself didn't get me to go check out the website. Actually, after seeing it, I was kind of confused. I knew there was a website, but I didn't understand its purpose. All I got out of the commercial was "see some stars sell stuff...get a soft sell from Brooke Burke." And since the celebs weren't intriguing to me, I wasn't curious enough to check it out. Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention to the commercial (after all, studies have shown people in my generation tend to avoid ads). It wasn't until my boyfriend (who was researching a new computer online) checked out the YoursIsHere site that I knew what the commercial was trying to get me to do - to have a celebrity ask your family/friends to make a donation to your Dell fund.

Today I visited the website to check it out and learned the steps to the whole "celebrity seller" process:

  • First, you select the Dell product you want to get (notebook, desktop computer, personal electronics (like digital cameras or portable navigation systems)).
  • Next you select the celebrity (Chuck Liddell (ultimate fighting champion), Burt Reynolds, Brooke Burke, Vivica Fox, Ice-T, Estelle Harris (a.k.a. George Cosanza’s mother on Seinfield)) you want to make a sales pitch on your behalf.
  • Then you set up a virtual piggy bank via PayPal (but only if you’re over 18).
  • Finally, you can post a "fundraising widget" tracking your piggy bank's progress to MySpace or Facebook, and send e-mail links with the celebrity sales pitch video to your family and friends.

See below for an example of the Dell Fund Tracker that you can add to Facebook or MySpace:

Here are some of my thoughts about the website/campaign/concept:
  • Regarding Dell's overall campaign, I'm unsure how successful it will be due to a few misalignments between the internet tendencies of requesting parties and donors. I would assume this website would appeal most to teens thru mid-late 20-somethings who use social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook. If we eliminate the under 18 age group (you have to be 18+ to have a PayPal account), we could figure most of the parents and relatives of these individuals are at least 40 years of age, and many probably older. Pew Internet and Life Project estimates only 59% of ages 30-49 have internet access, 40% of those 50-64, and 15% of 65+. So I doubt grandma will be contributing to your fund unless someone helps her out.
  • The widget concept for tracking donation progress keeps up with the latest trends. After all, widgets are hot...even Newsweek declared 2007 the "Year of the Widget." So, sure some people might find it cool to share the progress they are making in getting your new laptop, camera, etc. However, if your relatives are the ones you are asking to contribute, chances are they aren’t checking MySpace –or- Facebook to see how close you are to your goal. And I'm not sure I'd want to share with my friends how close I was to getting a new computer or a camera...or let everyone on MySpace/Facebook know about my finances. But that's just me.
  • Although I think the campaign execution could be improved, the concept itself is innovative. The fundraising concept is interactive, and offers some personalization (i.e. you can select one of six celebs). It does lend itself to being slightly co-creative with the customer (as in the customer is creating their own, unique Dell experience). Although it’d probably be even cooler if you could really personalize it (think Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken” for inspiration). Better yet, Dell could have enabled users to send completely customized messages to their potential donors. For example, users could upload their own video sales-pitch (via YouTube) or upload a photo to go along with a personalized note. After all, I would think mom or grandpa would rather hear the request from you than from someone they don't know (especially a B/C list celebrity). Even your sister/brother/boyfriend/girlfriend would probably rather hear from you.
  • The part of the site I think is brilliant is the ability to set up a virtual "piggy bank" via PayPal. Dell is on to something with this and I think other retailers (and PayPal) should start thinking about making this a standard customer offering. Why? It might help reduce consumer waste due to unused/lost/unwanted gift cards and encourage consumers to buy bigger ticket items. TowerGroup estimated $8 Billion was lost last year due to expired/lost/forgotten-about gift cards and Consumer Reports said 27% of card recipients have not used at least one card they have received. The virtual piggy bank not only allows people to get something they really want for Christmas (or potentially some other occassion), but it puts all of the cash into one place with the recipient to use towards their desired purpose. I could see tons of uses for this PayPal feature. For example, it could simplify high school graduations - the graduate wouldn't have checks to deposit and could transfer the money directly from PayPal into their bank account. And think of how it could change weddings - instead of having a wedding registry, a bride and groom could post some photos of things they're planning to buy (or a list) and have a place for people to make a monetary gift ilo sending gift cards or bulky boxed items. Of course, you might have some issues with grandma trying to use it, but with technology there are always learning curves.

So, based on all of this, my feedback to Dell is: tweak the execution to allow for more personalization; offer the feature year-round (because once the trend catches on I think it'll become a norm); lose the cheesy, B/C list celebrities unless you want consumers to think of Dell as B/C list too.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Method Home - Making Product Shelves More Appealing

I have to admit, shopping for household cleaners isn't one of the most exciting experiences a consumer will have. Visiting any discount retailer or grocery store, consumers will find the household cleaning goods category is littered with endless options, un-original products, boring packaging, and harsh chemical contents. Since there are so many products available and a high level of competition, brands struggle to differentiate themselves from competitors. And surprisingly, the industry and its products haven’t changed much since the 1950’s. The small changes brands have relied on to set themselves apart include different scents, lower price points and unique characteristics that enhance cleaning power (orange oil, oxygen bubbles, etc.). Unfortunately these changes don’t prevent retailer shelves from being cluttered and boring and products from appearing to be all the same. Customers wanting to purchase a household cleaner may tend just to grab the cheapest or most colorful product to avoid sorting through the disorder. They are probably thinking “the bottles look the same, so the products must be equivalent.”

But in the late '90's the household cleaning products category began to see some evolution. Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, realizing the stagnancy of the category, decided to create their own brand of cleaning products in 1999. Their brand – method - emerged as a clean and fresh alternative to regular household cleaners. Method attempted to change customer’s perceptions by having unique, stylish packaging, smelling pleasant, and being environmentally friendly. Looking at a shelf containing method products versus the competition, the consumer’s eye is instantly drawn to the freshly designed containers. The company’s strategy for disruptive packaging appears to be working since customers are snatching up their products and method was recently listed as one of the fastest growing private companies in the U.S. And I am a big fan.


So how does method communicate it's brand image? Method’s key tag line is “people against dirty.” In other words, the brand wants customers to believe the current chemicals they use in their homes, might get rid of bacteria and dust, but leave behind toxic chemical residues. One of method’s print ads even reads “does my home have chemical dependency?” In this ad, a common spray bottle (i.e. common household cleanser) is cleverly shown in a brown paper bag with the top folded over like a bottle of booze. Comparing this image to the unsoiled, transparent method bottle makes the customer wonder how many toxins co currently reside in their home.

Method’s product packaging meets brand expectations through portraying an image of clean simplicity. Each Karim Rashid-styled bottle is organically shaped, completely transparent, contains bright fluids and has a simple label with crisp fonts. The rounded, slowly tapering curves of every bottle introduce a human element to the unfriendly designs of products past. Additionally, method’s color palette for each of its products complements its various scent offerings like pink grapefruit, almond, cucumber, lavender, and eucalyptus mint. Due to their packaging, method products convey thoughts of purity, safety, and freshness. The brand’s form language is consistent, and is carried across to their many products - laundry, specialty surface, dish, all-purpose, and hand and body. Although method’s products can be found in many of the same places as “ordinary” household cleaners (Target, Office Depot, CVS, Lowes, etc.), they are displayed on an entirely different shelf than their stagnant and conventional competitors. This display strategy further helps method stand out from the clutter.

So method's packaging strategy and brand image are "clearly" a how else could they innovate their packaging or product line-up? Regarding unique packaging, method’s overall strategy is effective and pleasing to the eye. However, they have not yet taken on the challenge of redesigning the sprayer/ nozzle head to further set themselves apart. My recommendation would be to carry their clean, minimalist theme on to the sprayer. An inspiration for this design could be the type of sprayer you would typically find at a modern kitchen sink. The shorter, more compact nose on the sprayer, slender neck, and reverse positioning of the pumping mechanism further drives the point that method products are uniquely different. Regarding product line-up, they are definitely headed in the right direction. They've moved from solely home cleaning products to skin care products as well as moving into Glade/Febreeze territory with their scented sprays, candles, oils, etc. They've also changed the packaging on their refills to become pouches that use "83% less plastic than a rigid PET bottle...(and) take less energy to produce." Way to go method. I have to ask those of you reading this blog...are you converts? Are you "methodic" about your cleaning habits yet?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Crocs - What's Next?

The Crocs Story:
In 2002, Scott Seamans discovered an oddly shaped clog developed for use in day spas. The shoe had been created by the Canadian company Foam Creations (a company Crocs, Inc. now owns). Although the product design was unusual and had attracted his attention, Seamans was most interested in its material composition. The shoes were made out of a waterproof, lightweight, and bacteria/fungus resistant resin, PCCR (now called “Croslite”).

Thinking the clogs would make good boating shoes (holes allowed for air flow and water drainage), Seamans added a strap to the back, and took them on a trip to the Caribbean. While there, he presented the shoes to two friends (one a former hardware sales exec, the other a former Quiznos exec). After talking about the strange clogs, and believing there was a marke for themt, the three friends decided to start a company together. They branded the shoe “Crocs” due to its odd shape and took product samples to boating shows to introduce them to the public. People were at first hesitant to embrace the clogs because they thought they were ugly. However, once they tried a pair on and wore them around, people became converts and Crocs was an instant hit.

Communicating the Brand Image
The Crocs brand communicates images of child-like fun, and quirky, fashion rebellion. Most of its shoe models could be considered whimsical and toy-like, boasting bright colors and a cartoonish appearance, with blown-up looking rounded toes. The design of the brand’s most popular models, clogs called “Beach” and “Cayman,” are amorphous in shape, often called ugly, and made fun of by most who have never worn a pair. The shoe design is so distinct it causes instant polarization amongst consumers. Consumers either love or hate the shoes. Those who love them believe if you’re brave enough to wear them in public, you must be cool. Those who hate them, however, have created websites like “,” YouTube videos lighting the shoes on fire, and t-shirts showing Crocs clogs being attacked by scissors.

Crocs are made for comfort and the company claims the shoes have the coziness of flip flops but with arch support and toe protection. Various design cues reflect these claims, from the soft, pliable, light-weight material that loosely molds to feet when warm, to the puffed-marshmallow-like curves of the shoes’ styling. The products’ no-frills designs (simple styling, solid colors, smooth surfaces) go along with company claims of Crocs being easy to maintain, non-marking, slip resistant, and dishwasher safe.

The brand goals for Crocs are for its products to be all-purpose and appeal to an extremely wide market, from babies to grandmothers. To help make its product appeal to the masses, Crocs offers varying levels of customization. Besides offering over 20 models and a variety of colors, the brand has licensing deals with Disney, NASCAR, and colleges, and people can adorn their shoes with “Jibbitz,” snap-in, button-like charms. Additionally, the high-tech material and animal referencing “Croc” name suggest eco-consciousness.

When Crocs were introduced, they were sold in small shoe stores. However, their popularity helped move them to national distribution with Nordstrom and Dillard’s. The shoes are generally easy to locate, but are still primarily sold at specialty garden, gift and sporting goods stores (Hallmark, Dick’s Sporting Goods), and upscale shoe and department stores. They can also be purchased direct from Crocs (online). In-store displays of the shoes generally show them hanging from a rack (no box, within reach of customer hands), which further enforces the brand claim of accessibility. The Crocs’ distribution strategy is not unusual, although their price point is distinct and further enforces the brand desire to be a shoe for all people. Many shoe makers will push the base selling price of trendy shoes upwards. Crocs, however, wants their product to be accessible to many people, so the base price point for their shoes is $30.

So...What's Next?
Knowing that the market for trendy shoes might be short-lived, Crocs has branched out into other products like t-shirts, hats, socks, and bags. Unfortunately these offerings don’t reflect or use the proprietary “Croslite” material upon which the Crocs’ brand has been build. Instead of growing these products, I think Crocs should expand their “gear” line-up (which currently only consists of knee pads and garden kneelers). Croslite’s sanitary properties (bacteria/fungus resistant), and the brand’s use of bright colors, provides Crocs with the opportunity to move into many other “gear” related products like shin guards, mouth guards, beach toys, baby items (teethers, bath toys, pacifiers) and even dog toys.
Current Gear offered by Crocs:
Potential Products Crocs could market:

Saturday, November 3, 2007

What Were They Thinking?

I'm sure some of you have already heard about this...since this product made an appearance at the automobile industry's SEMA (Specialty Equipment Manufacturer's Assoc. ) show -and- was announced back in January. But billboards have been popping up in the Detroit-area over the past few months, and I seriously thought they were a joke when I first saw them - ads for lavender-scented tires by Kumho ( And if you don't particularly love lavender, apparently the company is offering neroli (orange) and jasmine scents as well. Scented tires...who knew?

Although scented tires aren't the first thing I think of when I dream about upgrades to my car, I did have some curiousity about the product. My first thought was "is the scent good for the environment?" Then I had a humorous image of a person kneeling down in the parking lot taking a big whiff of the wheels of the car next to them (This behavior definitely does not seem like a trend that would catch on). And unless you're spending a lot of time in your garage - outside your car - who's going to care what your car's tires smell like? I mean, you aren't exactly driving with your windows (or convertible top) down, wind in the hair, hoping for a lavender-scented breeze, all the time. Especially not in Michigan where the warm weather season is short-lived. Of course, I'm not quite sure this is how the tires understanding is the scent is released when rubber comes off your tire. So do you only smell it when you slam on your brakes in a hard stop? My guess is most women won't be doing burnouts to fill their car with a lavender smell...

As proof these tires are actually available in stores, my friend Stacy just had her tires replaced and reported they had these in a glass case at a Bell Tire store. At $120-$140 a tire...a person could spend $500 pops outfitting their car. With that said...and knowing that women motorists tend to prefer cargo room and convenience to car gadgets (see studies like the one recently released by, I wonder how they're selling. Does this tire company think women (who they're targeting the product at) are idiots? As a woman, I personally feel like the compay is insulting my intelligence. Do they take me for a dizzy blonde whose only wants in a car are for it to be pretty and purple and smell like lavender (are we picturing Sugar Plum Fairies flying around in this dream too?)?

So although I give Kumho props for disruptive innovation, I wonder if they were thinking of (or sniffing) too many laundry detergent/fabric softeners when they came up with this. I mean, I could see a potential market for lavender-scented rubber floor mats. The technology definitely has the potential to be cool or desirable...just in another product form. So I guess the lesson learned here is make sure you have a clear understanding of your target customer before putting something out there on the market and heavily advertising it. Because right now, scented tires sound like a push versus pull strategy to me.
In case you wonder what Kumho's press release said, see below. And if anyone has a copy of their scented-tire market research report...I'd love to see it.
Press Release
KUMHO Introduces World's First "Aroma Tire" For Select Passenger Vehicles
U.S. market will carry limited inventory of orange, lavender and jasmine scents

Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. — KUMHO Tire USA, announces the introduction of the world’s first fragrance automotive tire, the ECSTA DX. The project is the “fruition” of more than a year’s worth of research and development to deliver an alluring aroma tire that replaces the normal “black rubber” smell with heat-resistant oils in the scent of lavender, and in later versions, neroli (orange) or jasmine. Visitors to can find the nearest dealer and will ship them for installation.

According to Rick Brennan, Brand Director for KUMHO, the company is selling the DX aroma tire to help build brand awareness and highlight KUMHO’s tire technology expertise in the highly competitive automotive marketplace. The tire is targeted at female consumers who drive such sedans as the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Subaru Outback, Chrysler Sebring and Ford Taurus.

In addition to a unique aroma, the ECSTA DX is engineered to deliver low noise levels and ride characteristics on par with the leading tire brands. Ride comfort is maintained throughout the life of the tire through the use of tread elements designed to provide uniform linear stiffness. Optimized pitch sequence and variable pitch lengths help minimize noise, while a straight center rib provides high-speed stability.

The DX features four wide grooves that help evacuate water, while a silica compound improves all-weather performance and wet traction. High tensile steel belts and a jointless nylon cap ply also help improve noise, ride comfort and durability, while an undertread reduces unwanted heat buildup for consistent performance.

The ECSTA DX Aroma tire will be sold through starting in the first quarter of 2007 in three sizes: 205/60R16 (MSRP $119), 215/60R16 (MSRP $125) and 235/60R16 (MSRP $138). The tires can be delivered and affixed to passenger vehicles at a KUMHO tire dealer.


Established in 1960, KUMHO TIRE CO., INC., of Seoul, South Korea, had 2005 sales of $2.2 billion. KUMHO manufactures and distributes a complete line of tires for passenger cars, light trucks and heavy-duty trucks. KUMHO has manufacturing facilities in Korea and China and operates technical centers in Birmingham, England, and Akron, Ohio. For more information, visit the KUMHO TIRE USA Web site at

Monday, October 29, 2007

Weber Grills

I recently took a class on leveraging industrial design in marketing. Throughout the course, I was responsible for analyzing several brands and their product line-ups...basically discussing what design cues the brand was leveraging to help convey the brand image. One of the brands I investigated was Weber. In doing so, I discovered they have an important cue they are not leveraging - their iconic kettle grill design.

So...What Is A Weber?
On its website, Weber invites its customer to “barbeque with a legend.” The iconic kettle design of the brand’s charcoal grills have been satisfying consumers for generations. Since 1951, the kettle’s reputation for durability, quality cooking, and simplicity has given it a cult-like following amongst serious grillers.

After moving into gas grills and specialty products, like smokers, outdoor fireplaces, and portable grills, Weber claims to have the “right barbeque for the job,” offering professional-style grills to fit every need and budget. It relies on having easy to assemble designs and claims even its portable models are able to deliver flavor like their larger grill models. Besides fitting every budget, Weber’s grills are very accessible. They are available at major home improvement stores (Home Depot, Lowe’s), online, and major retailers like Sears, Wal-mart, etc.

What Is Weber Actually Communicating To Customers?
Weber’s charcoal grills have the most distinctive style out of all of its product offerings. The apple-shaped kettle grill is iconic and for years has been the primary image associated with the Weber name. Its round curves, clean lines and polished enamel tones, speak of simplicity, friendliness, and honesty. The sturdy metal shell and plain, but strong, tripod legs make it sturdy and confident. This is a grill on which a customer will not hesitate to cook an entire chicken or enough hamburgers for a neighborhood gathering. Weber relies on the recognition of their charcoal grill design. As proof, the brand uses the kettle as logo, design accent, and primary cooking surface at the Weber grill restaurants.

Although the kettle design is distinctive, in looking at Weber’s overall product line-up, there’s a hodgepodge of design cues. It makes me wonder...what does Weber think it's communicating to its customer? Unfortunately, when Weber decided to go into propane grills and specialty markets, they lost almost all of the elements the iconic kettle. It is strange Weber decided to do this since the charcoal grills supposedly have superior cooking characteristics in part due to their round shape.

In the propane market, Weber seems to be following the lead of other grill makers and thus, its grills get lost in the crowd. Here, Weber does try to differentiate itself from other products other than sometimes offering grill “top hats” in muted, primary tones like blue and red instead of the typical black, gray or stainless steel. Customers visiting stores or viewing products online will have a hard time differentiating between a Weber and any other gas grill (Charbroil, Kenmore, etc.) since the grill possesses the same flat, double doors, slightly slanted lid, and squared off sides and back. The HMI is typically the same as all other grills with knobs to turn up/down the heat and a handle to open the grill lid. To a Weber enthusiast the Weber gas designs don’t meet brand expectations. They are simply boring. They don’t say “Weber.” By looking like everyone else, customers surely have to wonder if the grill truly is just like every other brand. What's special about it?

Looking at the rest of Weber’s product line-up, there are only a few hints back to the iconic kettle design. The smoker has some round characteristics, but is not much different than other smokers on the market. The outdoor fireplace is a squatty, tripod-like product that has much more angular lines than the round icon, making it appear a little less friendly. One of Weber’s latest “specialty” product offerings, however, does lend a nod to the kettle. This product is the “Q,” a cute, hermit crab-like, portable grill. Although taking on some round qualities characteristic of a Weber, it’s still missing some of the puffed roundness of the original design, making it comes across as more modern and perhaps less tough/ masculine.

So...What Should Weber Do To Change?
Weber’s propane grill design is positioned the furthest away from the icon associated with the brand’s name – the kettle. Right now, the propane grill looks like a copy-cat. It doesn’t stand out from other grill designs and is a watered down shape that probably no one loves and no one hates. It is unemotional. My suggestion is for Weber to redesign the top hat of their propane grill to reflect back on the brand’s history and reputation for superior cooking.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Brand = Critical

Yes, "marketeers," you believe you have a crystal-clear definition of your brand. After all, you went through the process to define your target customer and even created a brand “bullseye” to illustrate your brand’s promise. In fact, because of this, you know your brand wants to be friendly, accessible, and affordable. It should appeal to 18-25 year-old, early-adopters, who are still living at home but might attend college. You have a definition...yes, it's a good start. But...there's a catch. What is your brand actually communicating to customers? What does your product design -or- distribution strategy -or- price point -or- packaging -or advertising campaign make your customers think? And are you using consistent enough cues across your product line-up? Can customers look at a product and instantly know it belongs to your brand? Do you even know what people think you stand for?

So why is your brand image important? I would argue that the image your brand conveys is the reason your company is selling products (or not) and why you even exist in the market place. Your brand image is what customers base their assumptions about your products upon. And if you aren't consistent in your message or your message is a little “off,” customers will get confused, and chances are they won't be loyal. Why should you be concerned? In the current marketplace, there are so many options out there, unless you lack competition in your category, it's pretty easy for the customer to just walk away. And for companies, one customer walking can have significant impact. Why? In this age of internet research and social networking, we are very willing to share our opinions. Customers are more likely than ever to write about negative customer service experiences or product issues, write product reviews, share information about product modifications that they’ve done, take photos of products and upload them to websites, etc. If we do something wrong, a lot of people are going to find out about it. Market research and understanding our customers and what they want should be easy these days. We don't have to seek out customers; instead, they seek out us. Unfortunately, it's not that simple. I mean, let's be honest...there's a lot of junk out there on retailer shelves. I guess this just proves that most companies still have a lot to learn.

We are all customers. But being in business, we often tend to forget about things. We discount our opinions about our own products, because we are too close to them -and- know too much about how they work. We tend to say “Well, I am a product expert. Most of our customers won’t care about this.” We still don't get it. Many of us are stuck in an age where cost means the most and we don't seem to think customers will pay for a better experience -or- for a better product. We know what the customers want, better than they do, don't we? (Do we actually listen to ourselves when we say that? We sound like idiots!). We're stuck in a mindset of fear. Fear of the costs associated to taking risks. Yet we don't seem to notice that due to our risk-adverse nature, our products get watered down - and - so do our brands.

So why did I decide to start a marketing blog called “Brand Critical?” While working on my MBA at Ross, I found I really enjoyed deep-diving companies and their products, especially investigating areas within the marketing realm. I liked assessing what companies were doing wrong (and right) and making recommendations for change. Finishing up my degree, I knew I wouldn’t have class projects to work on any that's where "Brand Critical" comes into play.