26 March 2007

Coles breakup signals strategy failure.

Putting paid to his much vaunted big-box brand strategy, Coles Group Chairman Rick Allert announced today the troubled retail giant will be split and expressions of interest sought.

Despite a number 30 ranking in the global retailing stakes, Allert and CEO John Fletcher seems to have cast aside the dubious brand work of both McCann Erickson and Futurebrand and has told investors and the market that it was inviting expressions of interest for 100% ownership of the group including what they call the Everyday Needs Business (Coles Supermarkets and Kmart), Target and/or Officeworks. He also said the Group would also consider the sale of a considerable stake in the Everyday Needs Business as well as a demerger of both of Target and OfficeWorks.

Here at DIFFUSION we've been a long time critic of the group's less than comprehensible brand strategy, with Allert and Fletcher being consistently wrong footed by Woolworths. Just over three years ago Fletcher had the opportunity to set things right but even then he was saying his organisation didn't need one. It's about time other similar companies (we have a list!) woke up to the need for CEO-led wholistic brand strategy not run by their marketing departments or their advertising agencies.

Coles failure is a patent example of such strategy absence.

18 March 2007

BP tries a new shade of green.

In yet another case of corporates looking to control selected colour shades, global energy group BP has applied to the Australian High Court to secure the colour green.

Like our previous blog on Cadbury Cadbury sees red, not purple,28 April 2006 the move is the latest in the company's long running (and expensive) campaign to register the Pantone colour 348C as a trademark.

BP's new application comes in the wake of a Federal Court defeat in 2006, when the company's application to register the colour failed, overturning a previous trademark ruling that allowed the company to trademark the colour for use on its service stations and facilities. Interestingly the action was brought by Woolworths, who also use the colour greeen in their branding.

According to IP Australia, a company can own a colour if it can convince the Trade Mark Office that the colour is a distinctive aspect of its product. So while BP may call 348C BP green, having selected the shade in 1989 as the predominant colour for its service stations, the cull Federal Court in Australia wasn't convinced. It was most recently included in the revamped corporate identity.

Here at DIFFUSION most of us know that brand strategy and corporate identities in Australia built around a single colour are difficult to register. The case being that BP would have had to use the colour green alone within it's corporate identity. While BP's brand values might be founded on the idea of being green, it's corporate identity is awash with a combination of green and yellow, and thus the court saw green as only one part of the total brand identity. Further, the Court was not prepared to divide BP’s trademark into various applications to allow registration for the single colour. They ruled that the colour green by itself failed to acquire a secondary meaning and by that had not established consumer's were capable of distinguishing and recognising BP’s activities and brand from those of its competitors through the use of the colour.

Here at DIFFUSION, we wonder if in fact Pantone actually have ownership of 348C not BP. We may not be IP lawyers, but this statement from Pantone seems to contradict some of BP's claims:

...published materials of Pantone, are protected by copyright laws and include, for example, graphic presentations, color references, PANTONE Colors, PANTONE Names, numbers, formulas and software.

Pantone may not lay claim to the actual shade but they do to the registration and naming of it.

No date has been set for a hearing in the High Court.

16 March 2007

Stella McCartney gives Target some relief from cultural cringe.

Target, the Coles Group owned version of their American counterpart, have finally gotten a little design-savvy with the launch this week of internationally renowned designer Stella McCartney's winter collection.

The McCartney collection is part of a project, called "Designers for Target, style by design'' which has previously featured collections from Australian designers Melbourne's T.L. Wood and Sydney-based Alice McCall and Tina Kalivas. Unlike Target USA, this is a one-off project which illustrates some of the problems associated with the hero branding exercises like this.

Target USA are more design focussed than Australia with designers like Alessi's Michael Graves, Reidel and Isaac Mizrahi always in stock. The latest Target "Design for All" includes entire women's collections (not 14 pieces from Stella's atelier) by famed New York designers Proenza Schouler.

So why should we feel lucky we get this collection from Stella McCartney? After all she's been designing for Puma recently and the collection has been heavily featured in David Jones. And why is it only Qantas First and Business class passengers will get the benefits of design supervision by Australians Mark Newson and toiletries courtesy of Akira Isogawa and Colette Dinnigan? It all smacks a little of the old Australian cultural cringe. It's only acceptable for most people if its an overseas designer and has a premium attached to it. Here at DIFFUSION we believe good design should always be cheap and accessible. The Coles Group has had the opportunity to do this for a long time now. So let's see something from the likes of Akira, Colette and even Stella EVERY time we visit a Target Store.

Can BlueFreeway survive the Web 2?

Here at DIFFUSION we all witnessed the meteoric rise and soporific fall of digital agencies during the late 90s. Indeed, we were there in London and New York when they tried to recruit us to their agencies. The list is long and the names mostly forgettable: Scient, Viant, Deepend, Zentropy, Monday, Razorfish, Digitas, Lante, USWeb, CKS, Spray, China DotCom. Even in Australia, the likes of Attik, Spike, Deepend, MarchFirst, Razorfish all came and went with only smaller agencies and the larger integration houses surviving. So why is BlueFreeway going to be any different?

Their model is similar to those of companies like the Nasdaq-listed aQuantive, who acquired the Razorfish in 2004 and now works with leading brands to build large-scale websites and the digital marketing programs that drive traffic to them. Like BlueFreeway, aQuantive is an aggregator of digital design, marketing, performance and advertising services and has been busily acquisitive with no less than 12 companies in its portfolio spread from Avenue A/Razorfish in New York to Amnesia in Sydney. Like BlueFreeway, they range in size and market footprint.

Last week the ASX-listed BlueFreeway announced a combined profit growth of 27% across its group of companies for the six month period ending December 2006. While it was great news for those who managed to get shares in the oversubscribed float, the sustainability of the model is still under question. The results were unaudited and excludes costs associated with the Destra, which are already attacking the bottom line. Most of the agencies in the BlueFreeway group are small and perhaps with the exception of Spin and hosting company Destra, subject to the same kinds of market vagaries and pursuit of the unknown that killed so many of the more pioneering aggregation plays in the late 90s. More interestingly, like aQantive, the challenge will be see if this model can really make the kind of impact that CEO Richard Webb was able to with his former company RedSheriff. Or does Web 2 leave companies founded on old notions of how to build revenues (the traditional agency/service model) floundering?

05 March 2007

Is Starbucks on the nose?

According to a weekend report in the Washington Post, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz believes his stores have lost their soul. Or is he really talking about their brand essence? (see our blog 20 October 2005 The defining essence. Getting a handle on Oroton)

Quoting a leaked internal memo to his CEO and other executives, the Post reported that Schultz believes his 13,000 stores worldwide stores no longer even smell like coffee because of "flavor locked packaging".

But now the chairman of the world's leading coffee retailer seems to be onto something that should have occurred to him long ago, describing how "some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter." In the 14 February memo entitled "The Commoditization of the Starbucks experience", Schultz laments the the loss of "the romance and theatre" of the traditional Italian espresso machines, which have been replaced by automatic machines (in this Starbucks are not alone). Schultz wrote that the new efficient machines now commonly used in the stores block customers from watching as coffee is made and sharing what he called an "intimate experience with the barista." He obviously hasn't really visited a store recently if he thinks his staff can really be described as "baristas", when anyone who has worked their knows that a real barista does not simply press a button.

But to give Schultz his due, he is very aware of the threat from competitors who have created a more authentic coffee experience (anyone who's every bought the freshly grounf from Toby's Coffee in Sydney's Wooloomooloo would know this). Though likening them to pests who need to be "eradicated" seems to a touch colourful. More importantly, Schultz doesn't really suggest any alternatives given the scale and scope of the problme.

Here at DIFFUSION, we think it might be a good idea if the Starbucks's chairman think more carefully about how the stores could better reflect their local communities, how they might build a genuine rather than simply a differentiated brand experience and not rely solely on technologies and store layouts to maximise ROI. After all they have had to have been doing something right building the brand for the past 20 years, they must have learnt something.

A full transcript of the memo can be found at Starbucks Gossip http://starbucksgossip.typepad.com/_/2007/02/starbucks_chair_2.html
It reads:

From: Howard Schultz
Sent: Wednesday, February 14, 2007 10:39 AM Pacific Standard Time
To: Jim Donald
Cc: Anne Saunders; Dave Pace; Dorothy Kim; Gerry Lopez; Jim Alling; Ken Lombard; Martin Coles; Michael Casey; Michelle Gass; Paula Boggs; Sandra Taylor

Subject: The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience

As you prepare for the FY 08 strategic planning process, I want to share some of my thoughts with you.

Over the past ten years, in order to achieve the growth, development, and scale necessary to go from less than 1,000 stores to 13,000 stores and beyond, we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand.

Many of these decisions were probably right at the time, and on their own merit would not have created the dilution of the experience; but in this case, the sum is much greater and, unfortunately, much more damaging than the individual pieces. For example, when we went to automatic espresso machines, we solved a major problem in terms of speed of service and efficiency. At the same time, we overlooked the fact that we would remove much of the romance and theatre that was in play with the use of the La Marzocca machines. This specific decision became even more damaging when the height of the machines, which are now in thousands of stores, blocked the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista. This, coupled with the need for fresh roasted coffee in every North America city and every international market, moved us toward the decision and the need for flavor locked packaging. Again, the right decision at the right time, and once again I believe we overlooked the cause and the affect of flavor lock in our stores. We achieved fresh roasted bagged coffee, but at what cost? The loss of aroma -- perhaps the most powerful non-verbal signal we had in our stores; the loss of our people scooping fresh coffee from the bins and grinding it fresh in front of the customer, and once again stripping the store of tradition and our heritage? Then we moved to store design. Clearly we have had to streamline store design to gain efficiencies of scale and to make sure we had the ROI on sales to investment ratios that would satisfy the financial side of our business. However, one of the results has been stores that no longer have the soul of the past and reflect a chain of stores vs. the warm feeling of a neighborhood store. Some people even call our stores sterile, cookie cutter, no longer reflecting the passion our partners feel about our coffee. In fact, I am not sure people today even know we are roasting coffee. You certainly can't get the message from being in our stores. The merchandise, more art than science, is far removed from being the merchant that I believe we can be and certainly at a minimum should support the foundation of our coffee heritage. Some stores don't have coffee grinders, French presses from Bodum, or even coffee filters.

Now that I have provided you with a list of some of the underlying issues that I believe we need to solve, let me say at the outset that we have all been part of these decisions. I take full responsibility myself, but we desperately need to look into the mirror and realize it's time to get back to the core and make the changes necessary to evoke the heritage, the tradition, and the passion that we all have for the true Starbucks experience. While the current state of affairs for the most part is self induced, that has lead to competitors of all kinds, small and large coffee companies, fast food operators, and mom and pops, to position themselves in a way that creates awareness, trial and loyalty of people who previously have been Starbucks customers. This must be eradicated.

I have said for 20 years that our success is not an entitlement and now it's proving to be a reality. Let's be smarter about how we are spending our time, money and resources. Let's get back to the core. Push for innovation and do the things necessary to once again differentiate Starbucks from all others. We source and buy the highest quality coffee. We have built the most trusted brand in coffee in the world, and we have an enormous responsibility to both the people who have come before us and the 150,000 partners and their families who are relying on our stewardship.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge all that you do for Starbucks. Without your passion and commitment, we would not be where we are today.