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Not a Hallmark Moment

You know how I love the concept of niche businesses, right? Find an under-served market that has a need, create a product that fills that need, and then build a brand around the product. If the market truly exists, the brand should do well. If the market exists and growing as well, the product and the brand should do great.

I came across a company the other day that is trying to capture their share of an under-served market.


Three Squares Greetings
is a greeting card company "for those who can't come home." It is a line of greeting cards for people who are currently incarcerated in prison. Seriously! The majority of the cards produced are to be sent from loved ones to people who are in prison. In addition, some of the greeting cards are written and designed to be sent from the people who are in prison, to those on the outside.

I know this is not going to sound right, but I think I love this company. What a perfect niche, and they don't dance around the subject; they hit you right over the head with it. Here is one of my favorites...

It's Christmas But...

It won't be the same this year,
or next year, or the one after that
because you aren't here.

Merry Christmas

I'm not trying to make light of the situation. The fact is, at last count, there are over 2.3 million people who are incarcerated in the US today. If there are 4 major holidays per year that might warrant a card, and add the inmate's birthday, that is a total market of approximately 11,500,000 cards. At $3.99 per card, that is a potential market totaling $45 million. If the company captures 10% of the market, they have a nice niche business with $4.5 million in annual revenues.

This may become one of those businesses where one day we all ask ourselves, "Why didn't I think of that." In the meantime, I'm working on submitting my own card ideas to the company. My first one goes something like this:

You're Better Off...

Than that idiot Bernie Madoff.
At least you're not sentenced to 150 years!
For that we say, three cheers!

We can't wait until your release.

Gotta love niche opportunities.

Losing Control

One of the common themes that I share with people when I am asked speak at events is that as brand owners, we do not own our brand. The consumer owns our brand. I maintain that it does not matter so much how we position our brand, it is how the customer positions the brand in their mind, and what they share about our brand with others.

It is why it is so important to always be "listening" to the consumer. We need to listen to what they say on Facebook, what they share on Twitter, how they rate our product on Amazon or Yelp...well you get the picture. It no longer isn't so much what we have to say as the brand owner; it is what the community of consumers are saying about our product that will dictate our success or failure.

Now here is something you really have to worry about...


Late last week,
Google launched a new application called Sidewiki. Right now it is only offered as a toolbar plugin on Internet Explorer and Firefox, but it will become available to all browsers in a very short period of time, and eventually I suspect, will be wholly integrated into Google itself. In a nutshell, it allows anyone to add comments on the side of your corporate website. Your customers can add their reviews of your products or services. You competitors can add their own comments or ads for their products to the left of your website. Anyone who has anything to say about your brand can make it a permanent part of your website, viewable by all to see as long as the viewer has downloaded Sidewiki. Here is how it looks on my blog.

Effective immediately, you no longer have control of your corporate website. Google, with one app, has just socialized the whole web. Everyone can say whatever they want, wherever they want. 

Still wondering if people are making too big of a deal about the social media phenomenon?

Saturday Morning Wow!

The way that we connect, the way we share messages, the way we tell stories, the way we share content, the way we interact with one another, and the way in which we learn, is all changing so rapidly. Right before our eyes

Can life be any more exciting than it is right now? Maybe...but it sure is fun to be living in the world at this moment!

Enjoy this video. Enjoy your weekend. I'm sure there's an App for that.

Secure Your Brand Through a Better Story

You've heard me say that marketing boils down to simply telling a story, and telling it well. Sometimes, it is not the words that tell the story, but the package itself, or the business itself.

I'm in Boston today for the Natural Products Expo. Last night, I took a quick walk, and came upon two similar businesses. Take a look at these photos, although I apologize for the quality.



They are both self-storage locations. They are on the same interstate highway, in the same part of Boston, with similar business services. You can rent storage space by the month in both, and you have access to the storage when you need it. They both are secure locations.

The first photo is that of Public Storage, a national company. We all know the brand, the orange sign, the reputation, the number of locations. It is what it is, a public storage business.

The second photo is that of a Boston based company named Fortress storage. What you can't see is their tag line that states, under their brand name, "Museum Quality Storage". What you can see in the photo is a big padlock and chain link across the front of the building, facing the highway.

If I need to store my valuables, I don't know about you, but I'm storing my product in a business built like a fortress, that takes care of my items the way a museum would, in a building that has a big lock with a chain across the front. It just seems safer.

Fortress simply tells a better story.

Say Cheese

In today's connected world, where most most companies are asking their Marketing Departments to figure out how to better utilize social media to spread their brand, isn't it interesting when companies do things that can be seen as self-destructive?

I'm talking about the use of cameras in stores.

IMG_0556 It is still common practice that many retailers do not allow photography in their stores. Most recently, although this has happened to me multiple times, I took my iPhone out and took a photo in a Whole Foods store. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that within 90 seconds, two, not one but two Whole Foods employees swarmed down on me like members of an elite anti-terrorist force, asking me if I had just taken a photo in their store. In my mind (here is where the exaggeration DOES come in), here is how the conversation went:

Whole Foods Employee: Excuse me sir, did you just take a picture of that display.

Angelic Joel: Yes, why?

WFE: We do not allow photos to be taken within the store walls. I'm sorry, I have to confiscate the film.

AJ: What do you mean the film? Who uses film? The photo is digital.

WFE: Then we will need to watch you delete the photo.

AJ: I don't think so. Anyway, this is an iPhone, and you don't know whether or not I have already emailed the photo to all of my contacts. So what does it matter if you make me delete the image now?

WFE: Hold on a second...I'm receiving a message from Whole Foods Central in my earpiece. They are saying you may keep the iPhone, but do not take any more photos while in the store, or we will have to ask you to leave. Thank you sir.

AJ: Can I use the phone to make a call?

WFE: We'd prefer that you didn't. We are trying to limit corporate espionage.

Seriously, there was only a little exaggeration in this conversation.

Whole Foods is all over Twitter. They are all over Facebook. They want to have their brand spread utilizing social networking. What possible secrets can be lurking in a display of chocolate bars?

Lighten up Whole Foods. You are making yourselves look ridiculous! You should want your customers sharing information about your stores, to whomever they choose. Its 2009.

Say "overpriced imported cheeeese..."

Tell Me A Story

Marketing boils down to one simple request that we first learned to ask for as a child. "Please tell me a story."

ImagesThat is the essence of marketing; telling a story; one that is memorable, compelling, evocative, emotional and results in the consumer thinking, "I really want to have that product or service."

With that in mind, take a look at these two beer ads. The first is from when I was a kid in the '60's. The second is an ad that was released this month.

After watching both commercials, ask yourself which one makes you want to buy the beer. That is the one that is the result of better marketing. Marketing is simply that simple.


Sorry, No Soap

It’s really important that we understand customer expectations, and then do our best to meet them.

Images This has always intrigued me. When you stay in a hotel, and you check out the bathroom after you first enter your assigned room, most hotels provide you with simple amenities like soap, shampoo, body lotion, etc. We have come to expect this; it is simply built into the cost of the room. However, to save money, a lot of the hotels are no longer providing refills each night, even if you use a bottle of shampoo, or open the bar of soap.

When this occurs, the customer is annoyed, and while they can call housekeeping to have refills brought up to them, why make the customer go through this ordeal. How much money can the hotel be saving? Maybe $2.50 a night, and that is extreme.

I know, sometimes the guests are removing the bottles to take them home with them for their own use. Okay, if the hotel has spent the money to have its own brand placed on the amenities, shouldn’t they want their guests to take them home with them after their stay? Shouldn’t they want their brand emblazoned in the bathrooms of people throughout the world, reminding them of the great stay they had at their hotel?

Isn’t it worth $2.50 per night for 4 nights to have multiple brand impressions that last days if not years after the initial experience? Isn’t it worth $2.50 per night to meet the customer’s expectations, because they expect replenishment?

Sometimes businesses make crazy decisions, and then they wonder why revenues are down. 

10 Things You Need to Do On Your Road to Being a Great Marketer

Just some thoughts on what one needs to do to be a great marketer, based on my personal experiences...

10. Watch television shows that you might not normally watch. Understand what is popular culture today and why, and try to identify the trends.

9. Read magazines like People, US, Entertainment Weekly, Hello, and gain a better understanding as to who’s hot in Hollywood, in reality shows, in music. If you read the magazines and don’t know who the people are, all the more reason you should keep reading the publications.

8. Eat at one new restaurant, at least twice per month. What’s on their menu? How is the wait staff dressed? What typestyle do they use on their printed material. What colors are they using? You can learn a lot from observing the restaurant industry.

7. Offer yourself up as a speaker or presenter at high school and college events. But it isn’t about you speaking, it is about you listening. Ask these young people what’s on their mind. Ask them what they think about the world around them, and what are the topics they care most about. Ask them what and who they think is hot. Many times it will be different than what you just read in the magazines.

6. If you are a man, spend an hour in a woman’s store and watch how women shop. If you’re a woman, do the same in a men’s store. See what they buy, and how they buy it.

5. Plan a vacation to somewhere you have never been. It always intrigues me that we go through life once, and people find a vacation spot that they like, and return year after year. What about the rest of the world; no interest?

4. Visit a new website every day. And if you can’t find the time, do it at least 3 times per week. See what else is out there. New websites are launched daily, yet we continue to use the same sites with which we are comfortable.

3. Observe and document. Look at things you see on the street, while you are waiting for a train, while driving in the car, while riding your bike, while walking your dog. Look at the way people communicate, signage, sides of trucks, leaflets posted to light poles. What do you see? What ideas do you get?

2. Try new foods. Walk into a gourmet store, or a high-end supermarket, and pick up foods that are exotic to you. Try new fruits and vegetables you have never tasted. Pick up a condiment or spice from a foreign country. Ask the employees what they like that is new and exciting.

And the #1 recommendation to help you become a great marketer….

1. Never stop being inquisitive. Talk to people you have never met before, and ask questions. Where they are from, what they like, what they are interested in, what excites them. People love to talk about themselves; let them. They will teach us. They will enlighten us.

We can learn so much just by living an interested and inquisitive life.


When I speak to corporate audiences about business growth, one of the tenets that I share with them is to “Think Globally, Act Locally”.

In essence, companies need to always be thinking big and into the future, and they need to make sure that their business is scalable, and can grow globally. While that may never be the case, it is important to plan early as to how your business my one day become a global concern. Think of Facebook starting on the campus of Harvard University as an exclusive site to that campus, and now has members in over 150 countries around the world.

At the same time, it is important to act locally. While your business may grow global in nature, and you start to gain customers or clients from international locations, it is important that the customers from other countries relate to you in their customs and their language. It is not enough to simply say you are willing to ship around the world, or willing to do business remotely; you must be willing to adapt to the local culture if the business is truly going to grow.

McDonalds has always been a great example of a company that gets this concept. While their restaurants might all look the same throughout the world, their menus vary based on the tastes of the local culture wherever the McDonalds might be located. Sure, they are McDonalds, you might say. And they have the money to do this. But in fact, the larger the company, the more difficult it is due to the fact that there are so many practices that need to be altered every time a local McDonalds region wants to make a change in the menu.

I’m on vacation this week and I find myself in Nova Scotia, about 3 hours north of Halifax. It’s a new place for me, and I have to say it is simply beautiful I needed an Internet fix; so after driving an hour, found a McDonalds offering free WiFi. More interestingly, there was a sign announcing that it was McLobster time, and for a limited time, the McLobster sandwich was now available. After talking to the manager, I discovered that this is a sandwich that is exclusive to the “Maritime McDonalds” and once in awhile is also found in the US Northeast.

How’s that for thinking locally…a sandwich that is developed and sold solely for the east coast of Canada. A great example of a global company thinking locally.

A couple of photos are included. Excuse my unshaven look; it’s a vacation!



Fly the Friendly Skies?

If you provide your customers with great service, and great services, they will come back to you again and again. 

A few weeks ago, I took a United Express flight operated by SkyWest and while getting settled in on the small jet, the flight attendant came bay and told me that I had to take my iPhone and my book out of the seat pocket in front of me. She said it was a safety issue. She then made an announcement to all passengers that nothing at all is allowed in the seat pockets in front of you. I thought she might be a seat pocket nazi, until I read an article from last week's Minneapolis Start-Tribune addressing the same issue.

Let's see how we can inconvenience the passenger a bit more.

IMG_0865 Compare that to the flight that I took a couple of days ago on Air Canada. Sitting in Economy, every seat-back had the following:

A USB port to charge whatever you might need to charge.

An outlet to allow you to have power while working on your computer.

A full entertainment screen with multiple movies, tv shows, games, etc. All with touchscreen technology.

Air Canada is saying to their customers that they will do all that they can to make the flight the most productive or the most enjoyable time in the air. And they are saying that they want you back.

What do you think? Skywest or Air Canada? Seems pretty simple doesn't it, yet great service levels seem to escape so many businesses?

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