The Blog

Using Twitter as part of your Social Media campaigns

I recently had a conversation with someone that doesn’t understand what Twitter could do for their business. Their comment was, “I really don’t care about seeing what someone is doing – and why would I want to tell the world that I just walked into Starbucks”. Of course, there are those that use Twitter for this…but there is far more to Twitter than updating in 140 characters exactly what you’re doing at that very moment. Tweets are a great tool to share stories, promote your business, offer promotions to your customers, break news about a big sale or a new product introduction, as well as to cheaply and effectively build your brand. So, based on that conversation, here’s what I told him makes Twitter an important part of a businesses social media marketing campaign.

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Build a network – Facebook and other social networking platforms are great for keeping in touch with people you already know, but when it comes to building out your network among those that don’t know you, Twitter is much more effective. With Twitter, you can find and follow those that have similar interests as you  – helping you to build clientele that you may not of otherwise been able to find.

Drive website and blog traffic – You’ve updated your website, or added a new blog post – now you have to hope people find it. With Twitter, you can redistribute that content – and drive them back to the full blog post or web update, improving your site traffic.

It’s a great PR tool – With Twitter’s Direct Messaging tools, you can target specific journalists that follow you on Twitter to pitch story ideas. Given the cost of retaining a PR firm for a small business, this can be a very cost effective way to get news about your company out to the press.

Understand how your brands are doing – With the ability within Twitter to keep track of “mentions”, you can not only see what is being said about your brands and your company, you’ll be in  a much better  position to deal with negative feedback and counter it quickly. And, it’s also a great tool for getting instant feedback – far quicker (and quicker) than focus groups. Just ask your followers for their opinion!

Link to other conversations that might be of interest to your customers – With Twitter, it’s easy to share those things that you might find to be of interest with your customers. Not only is this a bit easier than trying to figure out what to say every time you make a Twitter post, its an effective way to not only keep your name in  front of your clients, but also continue to on your reputation as being a more viable source of information than your competition.

Improve your knowledge & skills – For example, I started following a number of design companies that post on Twitter. From that, I’ve discovered things like sources for free fonts, CSS design tools, best-practices for print submissions that I was unaware of…tools that allow me to not only offer better services for my clients, but also help streamline the work I do.

Improve relationships in your existing networks – Rather than using instant messaging,  Twitter allows people to connect and message regardless of what IM network they may use. And, with TweetDeck’s (and other Twitter platforms) ability to easily allow you do either to group messages, direct message, and mentions, you have the ability to connect far easier than trying to manage IM message among multiple networks.

Find good employees – Try using Twitter to solicit your followers for references on people you might need to hire. Much more convenient (and cheaper) than using either classified ads, or online job search websites!

Find a job – In the same vein, if the economy has you downsized, or you’re having to downsize your own company, use Twitter to soliciti your followers to either find yourself new job opportunities, or aid your soon-to-be downsized people to find new employment.

Why you should use WordPress for your blogging platform

I first started working with WordPress about 2 years ago, when a client project I was working on required me to transfer their existing WordPress blog to a new hosting account. Which, required me to learn how easy it was to transfer the background MySQL database to the new host, change a few settings, and then test to make sure everything was working properly.

When I first started playing with that blog while testing things, I realized how much more impactful this platform was over other platforms like Blogger or Tumblr – and it all came down to the following:

1. Branding: The last thing you want when someone is at your website, is for the viewer to leave. You want to keep them there, rather than make them feel that they’ve gone “someplace else”. Sure, you can modify your template in other platforms to include your logo – but, with WordPress, you can have your web designer “reskin” the WordPress blog to look as though the viewer was actually still within your site. For example, this blog for The Design Foundry that you’re looking at is a WordPress blog, yet the rest of this website is a normal, PHP-based website.  Not to mention the issue of trying to come up with a URL name for a non-WordPress blog that matches your current URL!

2. Mobile: With the advent of the iPhone, more and more web-content, especially blogs, are now being looked at over a mobile platform. There is no guarantee of readability of your blog over mobile platforms if you’re using something like Tumblr or Blogger. Yet, with WordPress, you can download and install a free plug-in such as WP-Touch (which, allows your WordPress blog to appear in an iPhone friendly manner – but only on iPhones) – or the WordPress Mobile Edition plug in which I’ve now started using, which supports not only the iPhone, but also Android, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry platforms.

3. Plug-ins: I touched on this a moment ago under Mobile – but there are huge advantages to being able to install a plug-in for a specific need. Whether it’s to improve mobile viewing, search engine optimization, or other more specific needs – WordPress has a flexibility that other platforms are lacking in.

4. Search: First, if your current website is using Google Analytics, you can download a plug-in called Google Analyticator, that allows you to put in your Analytics code and it will track your blog under your current reporting. Second, you can download the plug-in called All-In-One-SEO – which allows you to add content for that specific blog posting making it more searchable – including Title / Description / Meta Tags. And, if your WordPress blog is part of your overall site, it may help your Google page-rank.

5. CMS: Also known as a Content Management System, a CMS is a website that you can constantly update and maintain – which is excellent for keeping things like an online calender, news & events page, or….your blog – updated easily! The WordPress platform has two parts – “Posts” (which are your regular blog entries), and “Pages” (which are basically web-pages”. If your under a tight budget constraint, or need to set up a micro-website – WordPress is a great way of doing this. With plenty of free or inexpensive “skins” (a.k.a. “Themes”) available from places like Template Monster, for around $50 – you can now have a small, inexpensive website!

6. You’re In Good Company: Sure, there are hundreds of thousands of small blogs out there using WordPress. But, some larger companies you might have heard of also use WordPress. Companies like Digg, Ford, General Electronic, Sony, People Magazine, Samsung, Playstation, New York Times,CNN, Flickr, eBay, Yahoo, and Wall Street Journal also use WordPress.

Keep in mind there are two versions of WordPress. There is the version that is like other blogs such as Blogger – that’s not what you’re looking for. You want the one where you download a file, and install it via FTP to your hosting account. You’ll also need to set up a MySQL database for WordPress on your hosting account, so you’ll want to make sure your hosting uses Linux, not Windows, and that your hosting package includes MySQL databases available. And, unless your the technical sort, you might want to have a web design company or your hosting company do your install.

Now, if you’re new to blogging, and all of this seems a bit daunting – not a problem. One of the other nice things about WordPress is it’s ability to import your content, including tags that you’ve used, when you do your first install. So, if you’re not ready to move to WordPress yet – you can either start or continue with your current platform until you’re ready, and depending on your current platform, have a very easy transition when your ready without loosing the content that you’ve already put out there.  And, feel free to contact The Design Foundry if you want to know more!

Happy Blogging!

Resources:

www.wordpress.org
www.templatemonster.com
www.semperfiwebdesign.com (All-In-One-SEO Plugin)
plugins.spiralwebconsulting.com/analyticator.html (Google Analyticator Plug-In)
crowdfavorite.com/wordpress (WordPress Mobile Edition Plug-In)

Getting started with Social Media

With all the buzz surrounding sites like Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, the question remains – why is this important to my business? Well, it’s pretty simple. It could be detrimental to your business if you don’t.

First, let’s talk about how “Citizen Marketers”, as author Jackie Huba calls them / us, can have an impact. In his book, “What Would Google Do”, author Jeff Jarvis talks about his experience in June 2005 with Dell. In his now famous example, Jeff had a bad experience with a Dell purchase. In the past, he might have told a few people, who told a few people, and over an extended period of time, perhaps an extremely small segment of the population would have had avoided buying a Dell product.

But, with the advent of blogging, this changed the playing field. Jeff, who happens to be the proprietor of one of the Web’s most popular and respected blogs, Buzzmachine.com, blogged about it. Others read his blog, and they blogged about their bad experiences. And, it quickly had a significant impact on Dell’s reputation, and their sales.

Fortunately, in this case, Dell did the right thing. First, they started their own blog, and reached out to those bloggers that complained, basically saying “We’re Listening”. Then, they launched another blog called “IdeaStorm” – where customers could tell Dell what to do, discussing and voting on communities favorite ideas. Negative blog buzz dropped from 49% to 22% within a year.

Lesson – The customer knows best – and that the customer is boss – now we have to mean it. The customer is in control.

Getting involved in social media – joining the communities that people are involved in that impact your business – is how you can make sure that even though the customer is in control, that you are working with them, rather than against them, in growing your business.

So, the goal here is to understand what message is out there currently about your company, and then take steps to engage the community creating that message – and build relationships within that community. The best way to start is:

1. Google yourself and your company. Do it in Technorati, Icerocket, Blogpulse, YouTube, and Twitter.
2. Respond. Do it yourself. Be yourself. Find a problem. Fix it. Learn from it. Then tell people what you learned. Now, though, you’ll do it in public.
3. Do this by calling the person with the problem. Tell them you understand the problem and fix it and you’re grateful for his help.
4. Once fixed – encourage them to blog about the experience.
5. Start a blog yourself, and share the problems and solutions as they occur.

What you are doing here is creating relationships. Just like you do with your friends, family, and customers face-to-face. But now you are expanding far beyond your “core” group – you are also reaching out to those that you may not have ever thought of. Keep in mind that the people who say good things are important – they become your testimonials. But more important are those that aren’t happy. Think about it – they care about your business – why else would they take the time & effort to blog / post / tweet about it?

Next is to understand why things have developed like they have. From what I’ve experienced, Social Media has developed in the following stages:

Stage 1 –  Website: Basically an online brochure for the company. Little to no interaction between company and customer other than a “contact us” form.Stage 2 – Blogs: Gave companies an easy to use way to start building a relationship with their customers – and with “People” rather than “Companies” blogging, blogs quickly turned into communities. Citizens started to take control of the message – but with so many blogs covering similar topics, it became difficult for the customer to make sense of relevant information.

Stage 3 – Communities: With MySpace and Facebook, communities solidified among common interests  – i.e. “Friends”. Dissemination and sharing of information generated out of Stage 2 made it much easer to make sense of relevant information.

Stage 4 – Twitter: Combines best of Stage 2 & Stage 3 – with the 140 character mini-blog. With the ability to follow others & gain followers, sharing of information via “tiny links” ties back info from blogs & social networks back into the mainstream in a controlled fashion.

The Benefit: Engagement Correlates To Financial Performance
In a recent study by The Altimeter Group, they found that implementing a social medial strategy for your business has a quantifiable result on revenues. When they looked at the financial performance of brands, they found that those companies that engaged in social media grew their revenues 18% over the last 12 months, compared to the least engaged companies who on average, saw a 6% decline in revenue during the same period. As they put it, “For example, a company mindset that allows a company to be broadly engage with customers on the whole probably performs better because the company is more focused on companies than the competition.” |  ENGAGEMENTdb – Altimeter 20 July 2009

According to their study, 4 things stand out:

It’s about quality, not quantity.
Don’t just set up a blog or a Facebook profile and leave it out there – keep up with it. Keep your content fresh. Build a network of friends & followers. Get involved with  your audience.It’s everbody’s job.
Don’t just assign this to one person in your organization. Get everybody involved – if someone engages your suppliers and / or customers, those customer touch points are where your social media efforts need to target.

If you can’t do everything – do something.
Start now, or you’ll fall behind. Even if your customers aren’t doing it – eventually they will.

Find your sweet spot.
Test and see what works best – then do it well. Be the master of what works, rather than spread yourself thin and be a master of nothing.

How to Start:

  • Again, search about yourself – and your competitors. It’s free market research to better understand how customers perceive you.
  • Remember that you don’t control your brand. Your customer does. To influnce their perception, you have to build relationships with them.
  • Start with the basics. Start a blog. You can make a free online one at blogger.com, or WordPress.com.
  • Start a Facebook account. Keep it focused on your business.
  • Start a Twitter account. Search for, and follow, those that affect your business. Your suppliers. Your customers. Publications that influence your industry. Even your competitors.
  • Start a Friendfeed account – and link your blog, your Facebook account, and your Twitter account together – that’s what FriendFeed does.
  • Do it every day. Tell your friends, your employees, your customers – to log on and “tweet”. Get a smartphone and do it on the run. Just do it!
  • Remember that this is constantly changing – so don’t worry about knowing how to do everything at once. Just start slow – and to get an idea of how to post – read the posts of those you follow – both in blogs & Twitter. You’ll quickly get the hang of it!

This isn’t rocket science. And, it’s not something you can take lightly either. But keep in mind that by doing this right – and right now – you have the opportunity to not just learn about what your customer thinks about you today, you have the chance to have a positive impact on what they think tomorrow – and with the growth of online communities, you can impact the perceptions of everybody they are connected with as well!

Thoughts on Customer Perception

I just watched a commentary about GM’s exit from bankruptcy, and the struggles it will face moving forward. Specifically, that in recent customer approval ratings upon ranking issues they had with their new car purchase, the statistical difference between a Chevy product, and a Toyota product, were insignificant. Yet, the public perception of quality between these two brand is huge!

How many times have we made a choice between two brands based on our perceptions, rather than reality? And, later on, either found out we made the wrong choice, or that had we made the “other” choice, the result would have been the same?

I think about what we see & hear in the media. How that shapes our perceptions. How what our friends and family say about an experience shapes our purchasing decisions. And, from a brand management perspective, how can we re-shape and re-manage those perceptions in a social-media controlled environment.

It used to be quite simple. Do a big ad-spend over a significant amount of time, get some good PR around your product – and everything would improve. No longer. One bad experience means thousands of instant Twitter posts, Facebook status updates, and instant market share loss. What’s the solution?

Simple. Never let your guard down. Whatever you do when you interface with the customer – do more. Do it better. Your product needs to provide a better experience than it does now – and you need to keep improving it. And, ask your customers what they think! Don’t ever assume – anything. Research, learn, implemient. Rinse & repeat.

Now…the bigger question – will your accounting department and your shareholders understand this concept?

More on American Car Design…

I recently got a comment from a reader, who took issue with some of my past comments on why it seems that American car manufacturers seem to design “less than attractive” cars. His points were that so have the Japanese & European manufacturers…and with attitudes like mine, no wonder the American automotive industry is in such crisis.

I applaud his brand loyalty. There are plenty of things I’m also loyal to – and I wish one of them was cars from the American car industry. But, his logic is flawed, in my opinion. Based on his note, the problem isn’t that we’ve built ugly cars, it’s that people just need to buy American. To a degree, he’s right – if we’d bought more American cars, we wouldn’t see GM shedding brands and declaring bankruptcy, nor would we see Fiat now a large owner of Chrysler.

But, let’s take my opinions out of the equation for a moment. Reality – the American buyer votes with his bank account…and there are a multitude of reasons why he/she hasn’t voted American nearly as much recently as, say, back in the 1960’s.

So, let’s take a look at “1969 vs. 2009”.

  1. Market Penetration. In 1969 – there wasn’t Datsun / Nissan, or Honda, or Toyota, or Subaru, or Mazda, or Kia, or Hyundai….and the list goes on. What the American automotive machine was competing against was either poorly made cheap British & Italian cars, or the VW Beetle. And, American build quality was world-leading. But, the cars were simple. Frame, body, engine, carburetor, wheels, suspension, brakes. Performance was measured by adding a bigger engine, and maybe cutting down on the overall mass of the car – which is how the muscle car grew in popularity initially. Competition between GM, Ford & Chrysler kept the lines moving. And, yet, when it came to performance cars, American cars were a good value. Now, 2009. American cars have to compete not only with their much improved counterparts “across the pond”, they also have had to compete with a whole new group from Asia, which even if everything else was even, would still contribute to a loss of market share over the last 40 years.
  2. Value for the Money. In 1969, as I mentioned above, you could build a car for a pretty inexpensive amount of money. Safety requirements, emissions requirements, reliability expectations were all much lower. So, there was not only room to pay the labor costs associated with the car, but still make a good sized profit. Now, in 2009, labor costs, along with the costs of meeting safety and emissions requirements, have caused the cost to build a car to explode. Unions still expect their workers to get paid the wages they’ve negotiated, retired workers still need their pensions, and shareholders still want their ROI. So, the accountants have gotten involved – and even though the overall reliability of American cars has drastically improved over the last 20 years, they still feel “cheap” inside. Hard plastic, cheap materials, and lost options abound on the lower-tiered cars in order to hit their price points. Yet, with lower labor costs, no union pensions, and a different shareholder perspective, have allowed European and Asian manufacturers to create cars that “feel” more expensive in comparison.
  3. Management Myopia. 1969 had the “Big Three” competing with themselves for the most part. When the rush of inexpensive, and eventually reliable, Asian cars rolled in during the 70’s gas crisis, it seems that one of two things happened. Either management ignored the threat, or with our American desire for “instant gratification”, the Big 3 shareholders handcuffed management’s need to change the companies and their resulting corporate cultures to chase after the “immediate ROI”. I suspect it was a bit of both. Case in point – GM was the early innovator in the late 1990’s with battery / hybrid technology with the EV1. Yet, they killed the car because they felt the need to chase Ford & Chrysler for SUV market share – and transferred those development dollars to Hummer. Now, Hummer is being sold to a Chinese company, and Toyota currently leads the way.

To be fair, not all American cars suck. The new Chevy Malibu – very attractive, and back to providing good value for the money. Same with most of the Cadillac line. Dodge still builds some of the best trucks, not to mention most attractive. But, of the three, Ford in my mind still leads the way. The Mustang – just about perfect. The truck lines – spectacular. And, unlike the other two, Ford does know how to build small cars – the Focus has always felt more expensive than it was, and the upcoming Fiesta is a world leader.

It’s not that I want the American car industry to fail –far from that. I want to see them truly regain the position that they’ve lost over the last 40 years. But, to “Buy American” just because it’s American – doesn’t keep us competitive. It doesn’t force us to do our best. Competition is good. It’s even better when – finally – it seems that the Big 3 have woken up, and realized that they aren’t competing anymore with each other – they are now on a world stage, and have to cut back, build attractive cars that provide safety, reliability, value – and are just as attractive from a design perspective as anything from Europe or Asia.

Here’s hoping they do it!

Apture – Great website plug-in

Just found this plug-in for websites & blogs – Apture. Check it out at http://www.apture.com/simplified/ – I first saw it on FlightGlobal‘s site. I like the idea of being able to quicky embed content (including Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Wikipedia, etc. from within the site, and make it available without being obnoxious. And, for users who are registered Apture users, they can highight text, and have info pushed to them that’s relevant to what they just highlighted off your site’s content.

From their site’s explanation, “Automated tools or machines don’t know how to tell stories, people do. That’s why we give you the power to select the content you want from the most rich and diverse web media destinations. Express the story you want to tell with the most emotional impact.”

Gotta love modern technology!

Chrysler – When Design does – and doesn’t – sell…

News today that Chrysler has declared bankruptcy. Wow – really, it’s only 30 years to late. In reality, Chrysler was dead back in 1979 when they took government loans to stave off bankruptcy.

I remember that time pretty vividly. Within a year, Chrysler was on their way to “recovery” thanks to Lee Iacocca, and the infamous “K” car. And, the Dodge Aries K was the first car I ever drove – back in 1980 in a drivers-ed class. The second car I drove during that same driving class was a Toyota Corolla – and the quality difference at that point made me understand why the Japanese car industry was overtaking the world.

Toyota, Mazda, Datsun (now Nissan), Honda and Subaru, 30 years ago – built cars that were cheap. Sure…maybe the interior plastics didn’t mix well with sunshine over time. But they ran. And ran. Didn’t break. Never left you stranded.

At the same time, it seems the “Big 3” were still trying to believe they were on top of the world like they were 10-15 years earlier. Yet, both the style of cars they built, along with the quality of the product the offered….well, just plain sucked!

The Japanese – they listened. They paid attention to what the customer was asking for. Quality, reliability, value – and style. About the time Chrysler was getting lucky with the whole “minivan” concept (which I believe is what truly rescued them back in the 80’s) – Japanese cars went from being “cheap, reliable, and funky” to “good value, reliable, and attractive”. Just like Korean manufacturers like Hyundai is currently doing.

Ford, and to some degree, General Motors, have finally started to figure all of this out. The Ford Fusion – I drove one as a rental car a few months back – yes, it’s built on the same platform (as well as, I think, the same assembly line) as the Mazda 6. And, I thought it was finally something that would make me look at choices other than a Camry or Accord. The Chevy Malibu – same thing. But the Chrysler Sebring I drove last year – what a piece of crap!

For $20K – you get something that can’t merge in traffic, makes you think you could disassemble the interior with a dull screwdriver, and had a funky smell of plastic release agent that made me think that on a long distance drive, would be more effective at getting one high that peyote! Not to mention it’s industrial ugly.

Even the Chrysler 300 – with it’s “gangster” look – aggressive, yes, but one design straight “from the hood” doesn’t cut it. The only “affordable” car that they now build that is even slightly attractive is the Challenger – a car that steals all its design cues from the 1960’s muscle-car hey-day.

I remember back about 15+ years ago when Chrysler came out with it’s “cab-forward” look  – where they seemed to think they could lead with “style” – like this would cover the other, important things people look for in a purchase they’ll pay for now for 4-6 years – things like reliability, resale value, and “lasting style”. For a time – I had hope they would do it. Now, the market has spoken – and with sales down over 40% from last year, the lines they’ve brought out the last 2-3 years just don’t resonate with people.

Here’s the thing. Style gets them into the showroom – the first time. The rest of the car keeps them coming back. Example – Porsche. BMW. Ferrari. Jaguar.  All these companies build cars that go “beyond” style. Performance and resale value keep owners in these cars, and to a large degree, they don’t rest on their past successes – they keep the brands growing. New designs that break with the past (to varying degrees) – yet still keep customers excited. On the lower end of the price-scale – look at BMW with the Mini, Volkswagen, and any of the Japanese manufacturers. Even when sales are down, they retain their customer base. If style itself isn’t the selling point (i.e. the Toyota Prius looks like a freakin’ toaster) – it’s multiple other selling points.

I hope Chrysler can get their act together. With the concessions that both the unions and lendors are giving them, combined with Fiat’s eventual control of the company – there is a glimmer of hope for them. My fear is – if you can’t make a company work when you’re owned by Mercedes when the economy was good, how are you going to do it when the economy sucks and you’re owned by Fiat?

However they do it – they had better make their cars go beyond “style”. Give us substance as well.

The Impact of Brand Identity

I just read a great article by John Dvorak of PC Magazine, where he asked a couple of great questions – including “would you like the iPhone as much if it came from Redmond instead of Cupertino”. (PC Magazine – “Microsoft’s Brand Image Gets Worse – 30 March 2009). And he brings up a great point in his article. If the iPhone was a Microsoft product, rather than an Apple one – would we still love it?

He maintains, and has for years, that Microsoft has lost control of its brand image. It’s now a negative brand. Now…there could be multiple reasons for this. Negative press back in the late 90’s over the US & European government lawsuits maintaining restraint of trade, due to Internet Explorer being bundled with Windows. But, how is that different than Apple’s control over it’s software & hardware. Perhaps it’s the perspective that Bill Gates is a controlling, uber-rich geek, while Steve Jobs is just “cool”. Or, maybe it’s the failure of Windows Vista in the marketplace.

No, I think it’s something different. Apple has done a spectacular job of listening to the marketplace – and it’s customers – and building exactly what it needs. Nothing less, and nothing more. They’ve made the brand “simple”. Simple to use iPods. Simple to use operating systems. They just “work”. But, Apple has accomplished this over the years because they stayed true to a specific brand concept. Microsoft on the other hand, wanted “more”. They had the goal of owning the desktop. Microsoft would control everything – the operating system was the platform that they successfully built a business off of – that then owned the business computing space with the Office suite of tools, combined with their server technology. When they set a clear goal that meant taking the entire brand in one new direction they were very successful – and a perfect example of this was when they, almost overnight, took over ownership of the browser from Netscape.

But now, it’s too much. Their programs are bloated and heavy. They’ve tried to be all things to all people. Their operating system Vista required so much more computing power when it came out that even new systems that people had just bought couldn’t use it. With the growth of netbooks over the last 2 years, even the best netbooks can’t use Vista. Why? With the new tools to improve usability, it still had to be backward compatible with older programs – and older peripherals. When you buy a new computer, and it runs slower than your old one – and the only difference seems to be what you have on it from Microsoft – and it’s harder to use than your old software – you’re not going to end up having a good image of Microsoft’s products.

Which then translates to the brand itself. There has been the impression over the years that Microsoft’s goal was to own the business-space. And to hell with the end-user. Now, that’s not reality, but in comparison, Apple’s branding has focused on the end user – and with a clean, cohesive branding program surrounding their products, they have given the impression that they are customer-focused.

So, can Microsoft make a phone that is as good – or better – than the iPhone? Definitely. But, as long as Microsoft’s brand identity is one of “corporate monolith that creates products that don’t take the end user’s needs into account” – it’s hard to think that the public would ever believe it would be the better phone! My belief – if Microsoft wants to ever beat Apple, Google, or any Web 2.0 startup – before they focus on the product – they need to focus on their brand. The question now is – is it too late for Microsoft to do this – can we ever believe again that Microsoft is “best”?

Why the economic downturn can drive good design

We’ve just come out of a time where, let’s face it – the conspicuous consumption of the last 10 years dwarfs what we saw during the 80’s. We’ve had reality shows that show young girls being chauffered in Lamborghini’s to “sweet 16 parties” that cost the same amount of money that AIG employees got (or now, might just get taxed out of) for bonuses.

And, things moved on at such a swift pace, that as long as it was “pretty” – people would buy it. 15 years ago, who ever heard of the term, “Do you speak Prada?”. Now, with budgets scaled back, and people actually taking the time to think about what they are buying – now is actually a great time for products that are built on the concept of “form follows function”.

I’ll use Chrysler vs. Ford as one example. Both companies have, over the last 15 years, built vehicles that are attractive. But design goes beyond “pretty”. Design isn’t just how it looks – it’s how it works. Good design means you don’t have to think about how to use it – you just use it. In the most recent surveys done by Consumer Reports, had both GM and Chrysler at the bottom of the list in reliability, with Ford fourth from the bottom. (USAToday – 27 Feb 09). And, yet, both design cars such as the Dodge Viper, the Chrysler 300M, the Ford Mustang, and even the now discontinued Ford GT – that are quite attractive.

Another example is Apple products compared to…well, just about any competing product. During the downturn, Apple has introduced the new “unibody” Mac’s, the iPhone, new iPods, and now the Shuffle. Sales may have dropped a little, but to hear that Lenovo (which makes great systems, by the way) has had to lay of people at their factories in China – seems to be showing that the combination of good visual design, good ergonomic design, and good mechanical design – are what are becoming key to sales.

Basically, it’s coming down to this – if people are going to spend, they want it to last, and they want to be proud of it. Architect Sarah Susanka has been a proponent for years of smaller spaces, with money spent on the details. Over the last “boom” – the goal seemed to be to buy bigger homes – yet, not necessarily better homes. Last year, for the first time in 10 years – the average square footage of new single-family homes actually fell from 2,629 in the second quarter, to 2,343 in the fourth quarter, according to US Census Data.

We’re seeing a return to common sense. We want more out of less. We want to feel connected to what we have spent our money on. Those who produce designs that help create a long-term emotional bond to the brand, to the product, and to the company that produced them, will be the winners once we rebound out of this downturn.

More on the American Car Dilemma

So…now it sounds like GM is going to loose Hummer & Saab, scale back Pontiac, and may kill off Saturn as well. And, both GM and Chrysler want a few billion more to stay alive until they can get their acts together.

Only Ford is staying out of this mess for now. And, much of the blame goes to an emphasis on trucks, and now that gas prices have changed buying behavior, they couldn’t react fast enough to meet the new demand structure.

I realize that it’s not just the “Big 3” that are suffering. Toyota has reported a loss for the first time in 70 years! Demand is down. We’ve demanded that cars last longer. We don’t go and buy a new car every 3-4 years like we used to. Reliability means that even buying a used car doesn’t need to be a nightmare.

But I look at companies like Audi or BMW. They produce a narrow line of cars. BMW, for example has the 1 series, the 3 series, the 5 series, 2 SUV’s, and the Z4 sports car. All of this is less than what Chevrolet offers. So, minimal platforms means they can much more effectively market their brand. But the Big 3 – how many different car lines, trim levels, and overall brands must they carry? Their strategy hasn’t changed since the days prior to the wave of reliable European & Asian manufacturers.

Back in the 60’s, American cars were strong. Reliable. Design leaders. Now, everything is derivative of their past designs. Their most exciting cars bank heavily on nostalgia. But from a design point of view, their “bread and butter” cars – are boring, and don’t exhibit any style that drives “passion” – good or bad. Chris Bangle just left his post at BMW – I think the best thing that GM should do as part of their restructuring plan – is to hire him to pen the next wave of trend-setting cars! At least GM would get other press from his appointment than their CEO pointing out a hybrid car that looks like a toaster!

Of course….there’s the risk that the toaster-car would then have a “Bangle-Butt”.