Monday, May 29, 2023

Learning from Milano Design Week

Piggyback economics extend the benefit of an event beyond the fair grounds.

It is not known how seriously Walmart CEO Doug McMillon took former Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi’s recommendation to go to Milan for the Design Week, but I did. The opportunity finally presented itself after Italy lifted Covid travel restrictions. It was everything that Ms. Nooyi talked about – an entire city celebrating design. However, what was eye-opening was the way the common Milanese seem to embrace the Design Week.

The cab driver speeding at 190 kmph from the airport to the hotel wasn’t showing off his motor racing skills. He merely wanted to rush back to pick up as many arriving Design Week visitors as possible. The hotel, whose lobby had registration desks for hospitality suites and private events by furniture brands, offered free shuttles to locations in the city within walking distance of the various venues. From the art installation covering an entire building, an entire district designated for design, several pop-up studios and displays, the high-end over-the-top launch event of a one-armed chair by an iconic fashion brand, to the very basic shadow art by a small wallpaper company, it was noteworthy how cars, fashion apparel, fashion accessories and luxury goods had created their own displays, sometimes co-located, filling the city with design surprises at almost every turn.

Milano Design Week seems to have found a way to align itself with the economic interests of many business enterprises in the city beyond the furniture industry. The average person seemed to have caught the design fever and leveraged the event to derive personal value, meaning and pride. This manifests as the common person on the street cheerfully giving directions to nearby design event venues, and store owners and restaurateurs noticeably appreciative of the additional traffic from the Design Week. I believe that businesses can register themselves for a spot in the Design Week’s online directory. Such an extension of an anchor brand to bring engagement at the grassroots level reminds me of TED Talks and its satellite TEDx events.

Cities can learn from the Milano Design Week. With infrastructure such as an international airport, several indoor and outdoor waterfront venues, research institutions and Universities, comfort with hosting major events and housing visitors at scale, it is perfectly conceivable that a city like Tampa can emulate the success of the Milano Design Week.

The canvas and the palette are ready, but not the subject. Identify a human endeavor which touches almost every person and every industry, centered on which, the city can brand a week-long celebration, such as Engineering Week or Automation Week. What Davos has done with the Economic Forum, with consistency and clarity of purpose, the branded event-week can put a city on the world map of industry, help reap compounding returns and make it a magnet for capital – both, human capital, and financial capital.

Luxury brands need some bureaucratic love.

This article was written on February 21, 2021.

Luxury retailers can learn pandemic-responsiveness from the U.S. Passport Office.

One of my favorite luxury brands, considered the bellwether of innovation, seems to be struggling to cope with the pandemic-related stress on its systems. While I arrived on time at their retail store for a repair-appointment, it took 30 minutes before I was allowed into the store. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed exemplary service from Edward, their knowledgeable and earnest technician. The retailer is, after all, known for setting the gold standard in customer care. However, COVID-19 has required a reconfiguration of their in-store experience. This seems to have tripped the luxury brand.

When I arrived for my appointment, I walked enthusiastically into the store, only to be blocked by the outstretched arm of an intimidating security guard. He asked me to wait in one of three lines formed outside the store. The saga of my repair appointment continued to unfold over the next two weeks as I had to revisit the store a few more times and wait in line.

At each successive visit, my wait time and the choice of the line in which I was asked to wait varied. The security guards outside the retail store were totally in charge of the brand’s luxury experience, improvising rules. My wait time depended on primal skills, like the use of body language when the guards were making a visual assessment to decide my fate, projecting confidence through sustained eye-contact with the influencer guards, my use of persuasion to be allowed to choose the shortest line, and walking up to eloquently reason with them that it was unfair to make me wait in line on each visit for the same repair order especially when the technicians had clearly said I would be a ‘walk-in’.

Humor notwithstanding, for a luxury retailer to trust its brand in the hands of guards from a private security agency seems reckless. What customers first encounter almost resembles crowd control by bouncers outside some seedy night club.

In contrast, consider the Passport Office. Pre-pandemic, it was a chaotic room stuffed with families carrying wailing kids while the officials calmly shuffled papers and expired passports. During the pandemic, my visit to renew my passport was a markedly better experience than that at the luxury retailer. I walked in at the appointed hour. People waited their turns in the parking lot. The bureaucratic brand trusted its system, and more importantly, its customers.

Bureaucracy is not often associated with creativity. Luxury brands that pride themselves on building a brand perception of cool creativity do not want their brand to be associated with anything ‘bureaucratic’. However, a well-oiled innovation machine can get derailed when not built upon reliable systems that allow creative work to forge ahead. A robust bureaucracy provides for flexibility, just like expansion joint gaps that accommodate expansion of railroad tracks in hot weather. Bureaucracy fosters the dependability that luxury brands need now.

Rethinking outside the box

Ecommerce companies ought to redesign their services for the last mile first and stop boxing shoppers into a corner.

Our penchant for instant gratification through ecommerce has resulted in an issue that is not discussed enough. Homeowners Associations (HOA) are grappling with an interesting direct-to-consumer business (DTC) induced problem (and a new revenue opportunity) – shipping boxes thrown in the trash without being broken down can result in penalties for homeowners.

Retirement communities seem to be facing this challenge because the elderly or those with arthritic limbs are physically unable to break down shipping boxes. There is at least one recycling company that offers a service to break down boxes for something like $3 per box, as I recall. Free shipping isn’t free because of this lurking lingering cost.

Some of the boxes are nearly indestructible, making for a mini-workout every time you try to break them down – both physical and mental workout because if you want to be effort-efficient, you must deconstruct the box in your mind before you can flatten it for disposal. Some trash collection services are refusing to accept unflattened boxes. Mobility-impaired residents, especially in retirement communities must wait for stronger neighbors to do them a favor and help break down shipping boxes. Boxes build bonds.

Amazon got rid of many vacuum sealed products that required industrial strength tools to unpack. Still, 43% of their deliveries are in boxes. Their Frustration Free Packaging (FFP) initiative seems to focus on materials being recyclable, not on the ease of their disposal.

How does one effect change when online shopping is a way of life? The industry should have focused on the last mile delivery first. Changing that would be difficult in the west, though ecommerce stragglers like India seem to be getting it right because home delivery has been prevalent long before ecommerce.

There may be some unexplored solutions. The packaging industry could raise awareness through conferences such as Pack Expo, the premier industry conference by Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI), the trade association for packaging and processing technologies. One-touch collapsible boxes must become the norm, not just one click shopping.

Simultaneously, social commerce influencers could talk about box disposal after a shipment has been received, including ergonomically sound ways of breaking down a box.

Changing shopping culture is not easy but educating buyers may be possible if reviewers who post unboxing videos could append a segment on box disposal after they unbox products.

The other stakeholders who could help with the remnants of an ecommerce delivery could be the shipping company. Offer a haul away service for empty boxes the following day and repurpose the boxes. Offer unpacking services and same day haul away.

These changes in the supply chain will require stewardship from ecommerce leaders like Amazon and Walmart, packaging industry advocacy groups and last-mile delivery organizations.

Until then, box breakdown businesses could be the new newspaper route for DTC era kids or an additional service for their lawn moving clients.

When Real Estate Marketing Gets Unreal.


Real estate marketing at its creative best is getting to be as worrisome as creative accounting.

Just as a shoemaker can’t help but see the world as a place inhabited by shoes carrying people around, a marketer can’t help but see the world as collections of word clouds, conversations as communication, and explanations as messaging. When real estate happens to be an area of curiosity, one can’t help but wonder how real estate marketing could be improved for the well-informed buyer by borrowing ideas from other industries.

Here are 7 suggestions for improving real estate marketing from the perspective of an informed buyer.

The only constant in the lifecycle of a property must be a real estate company – yours. Think that buyers are custodians of a property until they or their future generations sell it. Sales then become an outcome of long-term business development, not a one-time transaction.

The supplies must be better than samples. Wide-angle photography makes spaces look disappointingly smaller in real life. Add realism in listings and make the realtor’s brand authentic while attracting better quality leads.

Build domain expertise in real estate properties. Develop ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ for your real estate listing. Build domain knowledge about a locality, and about specific properties, thus increasing the valuation of your real estate company.

Try account-based marketing. The real estate company’s true measure of success is in getting repeat clients and referral sales.

Gotcha pricing is short-sighted. Avoid opaque, gotcha pricing through methods such as splitting a landed property and listing the (now) less desirable property at a lower price while offering the adjacent land at a steep price.

Research like you are the buyer. Be forthcoming in listings with all the information that a savvy buyer can research and obtain on their own. Buyers will appreciate that you saved them precious time. It helps buyers build confidence in the listing and in a realtor’s credibility.

Redefine move-in condition. What you see must be what you can get. Provide the option to sell a home with the staged furnishings included.

These suggestions will not impact the budget of a realtor, but they call for a shift in mindset. It is one of those things that money can’t buy. It will encourage a real estate company to build, nurture and grow client lists for account-based marketing, and be valued somewhat like a dental practice or a primary care physician’s practice.

Account-based marketing will also fortify realtors against ‘For Sale By Owner’ (FSBO) listings. Introduce to the industry the concept of a third-party service which guarantees safe physical access into such FSBO properties. Trust-as-a-service could be disruptive.

A traditional real estate agent’s matchmaker role brings the most critical piece in these high-value transactions – trust. Unreal marketing erodes that trust. Real estate professionals must adopt lessons in brand marketing from enterprise or industrial sales – not used car sales.

(Photo by Ian MacDonald on Unsplash)

A consumer show in every town.

Few can travel to Consumer Electronics Show or New York Toy Fair, but the idea of a local consumer show is not far-fetched.

This venue is open every day. Registered attendees wave their credentials as they walk in. The bright lights symmetrically lining the ceiling make them lose track of time. Aisles after aisles of products are displayed seductively as in a consumer show, except attendees can put them in a shopping cart if they choose. Then there are the sounds and sights of goods being moved on forklifts one must dodge, endure the occasional announcement on the public address system, walk mesmerized by the high-resolution images on the giant television screens and the glistening electronics on display, the food court to rest and refuel, the sampling stations of products on sale that appear fleetingly. Lastly, there are the sore feet that attendees take home. All of these make it almost like a consumer show, yet it is not one because attendees line up at the checkout counter and cart away goods bought at the show.

Having spent time understanding trade shows, I can't unsee a convention center whenever I walk into a Costco. Perfectly positioned to be a captivating permanent consumer show, here are suggested changes to complement and enhance Costco’s current member-experience. 

  • The sensory experience in Costco is primed for a consumer show. Add a carnival-like playfulness and shopping is no longer a chore. 
  • Give indie bands a chance to perform in the parking lot and enter the music business.
  • Allow manufacturers into aisles to stand by to explain their products in person or via video conference while capturing consumer reactions in person.
  • Costco already holds live demos of products like cookware. Add a catwalk to the clothes section, running every few hours.
  • Allow manufacturers to buy the privilege of giving away tchotchkes and stickers.
  • Open up a section of the floor at a Costco for product launches, and live stream it on social media to compete with shopping TV channels, making shopping more inclusive for those who can’t leave home.
  • Grow an audience with themed book signing and book readings by authors.
  • Welcome teens to creating social media content while shopping, thus going beyond the traditional families who spend a good part of their weekend at a Costco.
  • Add a raffle at participating ‘stations’ to even out traffic, subject to gaming laws, of course.
  • Add a conference component with high quality programming to build a community that bonds over inspiring content versus fleeting conversations at a tasting station, or while waiting in the checkout line.

Costco, through experiential shopping, could prepare for its next generation of members, building not merely a mailing list but rather a community of brand evangelists, and get to escape velocity to shake off comparisons with discount retailers.