Monday, March 26, 2012

Visionary Thinking

Roger Byford founded Vocollect 25 years ago. Today, we look at the Talkman(R) device and think, "It's just another wearable computer." We have smart phones that do 100 times more than this little thing, cost less (albeit for much less rugged use) and work in such a user-friendly way. But imagine what it took to start this company 25 years ago.

Just to remind you, this was the age in which Steve Jobs was just leaving Apple to start NeXt Computer. In which Robert Tappan Morris was just unleashing the first major network-crashing virus. In which people were jazzed about IBM's new Silverlake line of midrange computers. In other words, not an era in which many people were thinking about wearables and the future of the supply chain.

In fact, I told Roger today that if he had come up to me in 1988 and described his business, I would have probably thought him a complete crackpot. "You're going to design a computer that you wear that listens to the worker in the middle of a noisy distribution center, understands what he says, and then tells him what to do and where to go on the basis of that speech recognition?"

The success of this company just shows me what "future vision" really means. I stopped by the third floor display case today that contains one of those first Mercury wearable device models. It's impressive, both because of its size and because of the audacity of its vision. And here we are two decades later talking about the shrinking market in our grocery business... because Vocollect already has 80% of the Supermarket Top 75 using our product.

What's your vision of the future? Automated guided vehicles that pick full truckloads and then drive them (driverless) to the store? Self-guiding packages that move themselves into position in the supply chain? Because if you're thinking about something like recently purchased Kiva Systems, I believe you that may be looking too near into the future. The big winners are going to be products from the visionaries like Roger who see the possibilities more than two decades ahead and then have the audacity, persistence, skills and sheer guts to fulfill those possibilities.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Category Management Bonanza!

I have had an unbelievable number of headhunter calls recently looking for category managers. It seems a lot of companies, especially in the B2B space, have finally gotten serious about getting the right portfolio of products set up at the right prices in the right channels.

If you're looking for someone like this, I have news for you: it's gonna cost you. My former employees are almost all making six-figure salaries or close to it, and they have 8-10 years less experience than I do. Talent in this particular category is just getting hard to find, and the value they bring is commanding some serious cash.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Another One Bites the Grass

Title of today's post comes from one of my favorite books from business school, Another One Bites the Grass: Making Sense of International Advertising by Simon Anholt, a former advertising exec. One of the points he makes in the book is the danger of problematic brand names in the international sphere. He mentions many famous stories such as the idea that Coca-Cola meant "bite the wax tadpole" in Mandarin and was therefore changed to sound more like "makes the mouth happy." But he also mentions a few I had never heard such as the Chevy Nova, which means "Chevy doesn't go" in Spanish.  A nice cold Pschitt, anyone?

I thought of this problem today when I saw a travel post including the product to the left. Wash your clothes in Barf! Smells clean and fresh!

We face this problem at Vocollect due to a name someone chose many years ago. Voice...collect...Vocollect. Makes sense in English, right? But in Spanish "colec" means "collective" (not bad) and "colect" means "garbage collector" (not so hot). In French, the sound is like "collection of calf" (also not so hot). Then there is the Talkman device. In Norwegian, the word "tok" means "building," which is not bad I guess considering that our product is used in large buildings.

When naming a product, some basic research on Google Translate might be in order. I personally favor made-up brand names. Google is a good example, an easier-to-spell bastardization of the number "googol." Alternatively, consider a brand name with positive associations in major romance languages if you ever plan to expand to Canada or Mexico, our largest trading partner in the U.S. The brand name "Liberto" would sound a little like "liberty" in English, Spanish, and French, and it would be fairly defensible trademark because it's a made-up word.

When I run the zoo, that's just what I'll do.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Employment Branding

Fortune magazine's most admired companies list for 2012 is out. Ever wonder why Disney is #13 on "most admired" but does not even appear on Fortune's list of best companies to work for in the United States? The reason is a gap between the corporate brand and the "employment brand."

Just as a brand helps make positive associations for the product for potential consumers and a corporate brand helps make positive associations for a company's products under the corporate umbrella, an employment brand makes positive associations for the consumers of the company's jobs. In this case, the "consumers" are potential employees, and the "product" is the jobs they are advertising at the time.

Just like a regular brand, your employment brand helps you with the four P's of marketing, in this case the product being the job itself and company culture, the price being pay and benefits, the place being the realms through which you promote jobs such as LinkedIn Jobs and, and the promotion being the materials you use to talk about the company (e.g., Website) and even ways you talk about the company during the interview process itself. Each item has a potentially significant impact on the talent you can attract.

Changes to these four areas don't just happen by accident. At Vocollect, for example, we have an innovative way to interview prospective candidates on the "visit day" that makes the process smoother and faster for applicants. This process helped me understand our collaborative and innovative culture and helped attract me to the company. Other elements of the "product" such as the game room with pinball and ping-pong tables helped position the company as still a cool tech company despite our relative maturity.

Employment branding is a critical consideration for HR in an era of competition for some of the most skilled positions. If you disagree with me, someday try hiring a skilled product manager with a degree in computer science and experience in a full cycle product development process from concept to launch. You'll find it's not as simple as just paying more than the competition. In fact, I know some engineers who just ignore the recruiter calls these days because, despite the potentially better pay, they just "can't be bothered" given how well-paid and happy they are right now.

Understanding where HR falls short requires some serious market research among the target hire population. To my amazement given this talent shortage, in my experience there are only a few research companies thinking seriously about this topic.  One is Gallup, the polling-organization-turned-consulting-firm, which has devoted an entire practice to employment branding. Another is Kenexa, a consulting firm that specializes in the topic. Global firms such as Ipsos seem to have pockets of interest in employment branding worldwide, most notably in the UK office.  Maritz Research has clearly done work in this area but doesn't highlight it very well.

So here's my challenge to some of the "big guns" out there: trumpet your employment branding market research better on the Web, in articles and even in the comments below. There is a latent market out there waiting to improve companies' hiring processes. And improving the interview processes and the jobs themselves for all of us who are occasionally in the job market.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Category Management in B2B

Lately, I am seeing a lot of advertisements (and hearing a fair amount from recruiters) for category manager positions at business-to-business companies. There seem to be a shortage of these folks with the kind of B2B experience I have; rather, the applicants all come out of consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies. I think many business marketing organizations have finally realized that the product proliferation and price confusion is neither helping them increase sales nor helping their customers find the right solution. One need only look for products on Motorola's website to see how hard it is to find the right products among the category clutter...and this from one of the companies in our industry that has it organized well.

The main differences in my mind between CPG category management and B2B category management are as follows:
  • Many B2B companies have multiple products that have to be sold as an integrated solution, making SKU rationalization more complicated;
  • So many different B2B deployment environments (compared with relatively few different retail formats) require countless variations of what would otherwise be almost exactly the same SKUs;
  • Configuration is de rigeur versus low configurability (except for private label goods) in CPG;
  • Declaring "end-of-life" for products is harder, as the installed base for products from the distant past may continue to be sizable and upgradability for these customers can be difficult;
and last but certainly not least:
  • Salespeople have much more influence over marketing than in CPG companies, in which marketing is general management.
This last point marks the crucial difference between the B2B category manager and the CPG category manager. The B2B category manager must constantly determine how to sell category changes to the distributors, systems integrators, channel partners, and even their own salesforce. In contrast, the CPG category manager largely relies on data from the retail channel and takes that data to the sales team to show them why they decided to make a change.

Ironically, both the lack of B2B end-user data and the relative power of the sales team means that B2B company category managers end up less focused on the actual end-user needs than in CPGs. Hopefully the emergence of demand for B2B category management experts indicates a change towards more end-user focus. I personally hope the rise of this group as a real discipline (already showing up years ago in industry leaders like W.W. Grainger and John Deere & Company) will mean that B2B product sets will become more user-friendly over time, which will be a real relief to those of us who have to order them, configure them, and use them on a daily basis.