Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Slow Gym


Physical therapists can transform the fitness industry with preventative services.

“You’d be surprised at the number of patients I see for injuries they sustained in a gym, even with a personal trainer,” said the physical therapist who underwent years of training in the medical field and is considered a purist for relying more on hands than on equipment to treat injuries. After an injury while dancing at an Indian wedding, I not only gained a new gait, but also insights into the business of physical therapy.

The facility was equipped very much like a gym, but largely underutilized. This was a physical therapy clinic, but it was also a business. The physical therapist had to worry about marketing, cash flows, and a lease, alongside customer satisfaction.

Another physical therapist at a university, a Ph.D., didn’t have those worries. She brought in research papers to explain how the body works to her college athlete patients. Yet another physical therapy office had mostly elderly patients. For all practical purposes, the place looked like a busy gym in slow motion due to its rehabilitative purpose – a slow gym. Slow gyms, like Slow TV, the Norwegian television channel which broadcasts several hours of views from a running train, serve a niche audience. A physical therapy center must go beyond its niche audience.

Typically, one thinks of a physical therapist only for rehabilitation after an injury or surgery; there is a stigma attached. They don’t permeate popular culture, something that personal trainers have done since the Jan Fonda era. Peloton gets celebrity trainers to keep its subscribers hooked. Social media’s audio-visual convenience allows individual physical trainers to build a massive following. Chris Heria has close to 5 million followers. We even see solo fitness instructors at parks leading small groups of followers. ‘Future’, an app, makes markets for personal trainers allowing for subscribers to get one-on-one lessons via live video. Subscribers’ progress gets tracked on a complimentary Apple Watch.

The market seems primed for physical fitness. Viral marketing tools abound. Gyms allow us to pay a subscription fee to feel less guilty about not working out regularly. Physical trainers push their sweaty customers to the sound of pulsating music.

In the midst of this fitness frenzy, physical therapy practitioners are left behind. Even when exercising the wrong way causes injuries, chiropractors get a call, but physical therapists remain an afterthought.

Physical therapists must eliminate the stigma of being something for the injured or the elderly and expand into physical fitness by promoting preventative maintenance of human mobility. Physical therapists could try:

  • Subscription based models for access to a physical therapy expertise.
  • Training camps for personal fitness instructors.
  • Extended hours to utilize the capacity of a physical therapy center after patient hours.
  • Partnerships with gyms and fitness instructors as distribution channels or affiliates.
  • Building a cool personal brand online.

Lastly, advocacy groups must make slow gym into a movement by enlisting the help of athletes, soldiers, and movie stars – maybe even Jane Fonda.



Friday, June 30, 2023

Leg room has no legs

The airline that rethinks leg room on long haul flights could have a leg up on its competition.

In starting this article, I got distracted and tried to see how many times I could use the word ‘leg’ or legs’ in the title and sub-title, much like how airlines are obsessed with extra leg room to differentiate their brand.

Long haul flights quite often resemble traveling by bus in rural India. “That’s why they have Airbus,” quipped a fellow passenger when I made the observation as we calmly watched the gate agent in New York’s JFK airport coping with passengers jostling to board the flight and stay crumpled in uncomfortable positions for hours at a stretch.

While airlines flaunt the extra inches they offer you in leg room, others design products to make long haul flights in cramped seats less unbearable – from special neck pillows to compression socks for the elders. Some passengers show up for long haul flights dressed in their pajamas with a pillow tucked under the arm, ready to sleep. In coach or economy class, the lucky few win the coveted three-seater or four-seater lottery where they get to stretch out and actually sleep flat if their neighboring seats are unoccupied.

Besides the discomfort, not only for the passengers, but also for the crew on long haul flights (they take turns sleeping inside tiny box-shaped cells in 4-hour spells), the health risks of sitting in flights for long stretches of time can be serious. Cases of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) affecting even young and athletic passengers aren’t unheard of.

Any airline that is serious about standing out from the crowd has an opportunity lurking within this problem. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines could reimagine aircraft interiors from scratch and think of how best to use the space inside an airplane for giving long haul passengers the most comfort with the least health risk.

Aviation could draw lessons from the rail transportation and the furniture industry.

Aircraft manufacturers could hold a contest for industrial design students and professionals to rethink aircraft seats. Long haul air travel probably needs a transformer seat, one that transforms into some sort of a bunk bed.

Perhaps they can they draw inspiration from sleeper cars of long-distance trains of the Indian Railways. Their 3-tier sleeper cars have seats where both, a bench’s backrest and its canopy, get repurposed using a simple chain and hook to make three tiers, each with a flat bed. The overhead bins will need to be reconfigured. Seat belts, safety regulations and instructions will have to be redesigned for the sleeping position.

Business and first class could still stay differentiated with options of privacy and elbow room.

Long haul flights where all passengers enjoy the choice of being seated or lying flat during flight could mean higher revenues per passenger for the airline, and fewer sleepy faces for the immigration cameras.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Cinderella Customer

Resorts that use the fear of missing out to sell memberships must fear missing out on digital age customers.

The resort was a marvelous machine that hummed day and night. I had recently watched a documentary called ‘Secrets of the Mega Resort’, so I simply had to slip away from a family event to understand the sales and marketing at such a resort.

The booking desk for the ‘presentation’ promised me a 90-minute process. I had my timer ready, but they told me I had to go through two registration desks before I could start the timer. I tried to nudge them along, but they insisted on printing out the forms. It turns out that the back of the printouts become part of the working papers they use to explain complex pricing by masterfully writing numbers upside down when seated across. After being passed on from desk to desk, the fourth person I met was the 'tour guide'. She wanted to drag out the process by including a lunch hour, but my timer was on.

I took the liberty of rearranging their sales workflow.

I asked to first see their best room, then talk to a customer, followed by pricing. I was driven in their ‘Cinderella carriage’ (a better golf cart) to a faraway section of the resort to see a luxury suite with a stunning view of the ocean, chef included. On my way out, I stopped a passerby who turned out to be a ‘member’ who loved his scheduled vacations and in there was a compelling testimonial from one workaholic to another. For pricing it was another building. We crossed a massive hall buzzing with salespeople pitching prospective customers. I was soon handed off to another impressive salesperson who didn’t care for my compliments about their sales machinery but was focused on assessing my purchasing power, inclination and impulse to buy. I was upfront that I do not make impulse purchases. Then another handler appeared and advised me curtly that I will never be returning and won’t get their special deal again. He pointed me to the final handler symbolically positioned near the toilet for my dismissal.

Resorts can do better with their marketing:

  • Wallpapers in other rooms showing the best views from member suites to encourage inbound inquiries.
  • Account managers, not handlers. Train all staffers to subtly weave sales pitches within conversations.
  • Use the time with a prospect to open up a lead pipeline to their contacts.
  • Compress the tour and complement with direct email marketing.
  • Make prospects your brand evangelists even if they don’t buy immediately.
  • Celebrate your members, publicly, with their permission.
  • Build a community of your members.
  • Bundle products like event services, insurance, air-tickets and ride-share.
  • Straightforward pricing like Costco to prevent buyers’ remorse.

My time was up. I was their Cinderella customer. My carriage disappeared as my timer chimed. I was left to find my way back from the far end of the resort but left wiser.

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.