Jan 22

Creating a Healthy Image for Junk Food

Since last August, I’ve been on a diet, and I’ve managed to lose over 30 pounds. My secret? I stopped eating bread, rice, cereal and potatoes as staples and relegated them to the “once in a while” category instead. (I also switched to diet soda and started exercising more regularly, but I should note that when I’ve done those two things before in combination with my normal vegetarian diet, it hasn’t been enough to help me shed any weight).

Why do I bring this up? Well, for one, it’s because I’m as surprised as anyone that I’ve lost weight, because the process has been fairly effortless. The amount of exercise I’ve been doing hasn’t been excruciating – jogging a mile or two three times a week and riding my exercise bike on the off-days – and because I’ve been substituting in fruit, nuts, cheese, pickles and carrots every time I need a snack, I’ve been able to eat fairly well through this diet.

But for another, it’s that I’ve become attuned to how unhealthy a lot of the so-called “healthy” food we eat really is. The problem is that we, as consumers, really don’t know a lot about what’s good for us, and we’re susceptible to marketing on the topic. All it really takes is a picture of a slim woman with a ponytail wearing spandex doing some yoga, jogging or just standing there, smiling and looking fit and the packaging just seems to scream “healthy!” to anyone who’s looking.

There are limits to the sorts of healthy claims that can be made, of course — I doubt you’ll ever see the most indulgent foods making a healthy claim – but there are plenty of examples of dubious products trying making claims that they’re healthy and, by and large, succeeding because consumers really don’t know the difference.

Calories are generally used as a means of tracking diets, but I’ve found that calories are one of those areas where consumers find it easy to cheat or mislead themselves. For example, if you’re on a 2000-calorie diet and you have 2400 calories in a day, it really doesn’t seem like very much, right? But if you do that every day, you’ll not only fail to lose any weight, but put on a pound or two quite easily every year. What’s more, it’s not hard to exceed that calorie limit – all it takes is a fountain soda, a sugary coffee drink or a few sweet treats throughout the day and you start to fall off the wagon quickly. Having a calorie “budget” is a good way to fail at your diet, because human beings aren’t very good at sticking to budgets.

So instead, I’ve started looking at everything I eat in terms of sugar cubes, candy bars and slices of bread. The first two are fairly common when you’re counting calories, but the third might surprise you. As it happens, I like bread a lot, and despite the old saying that, “man cannot live on bread alone,” I’m pretty sure I could live mostly on bread and be pretty happy. But bread is made with flour and sugar, which means it’s almost entirely comprised of simple carbohydrates – the nutrients that the body is most likely to convert to fat.

So instead of thinking about calories, I think about sugar cubes. One cube of cane sugar equals 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrates. A slice of white bread, which has around 65 calories and 16 grams of carbohydrates, is equivalent to four sugar cubes. Whole wheat bread, by comparison, is only worth three sugar cubes’ worth of carbohydrates. In either case, eating a sandwich, with two pieces of bread, is equivalent to eating the same amount of sugar I’d find in a full-size candy bar. (Two slices of wheat bread is the same as a packet of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or six sugar cubes; two slices of white bread is the same as a Snickers bar, or eight sugar cubes.)

I’m not sure about you, but I’d rather have the candy than the bread.

There are tons of other foods that people eat as a part of their everyday diet that offer a similar trade-off. Many of these foods brand themselves as being healthy despite the fact that they’re really not. Here are a few examples.

Example 1: Breakfast cereals

There are tons of breakfast cereals out there that clearly aren’t healthy, but there are a surprising number that try to position themselves as being “part of a balanced breakfast” which is, as we all know, “the most important meal of the day.” The problem is that most cereals are made out of the same ingredients as bread, which means that they’re not really all that good for you if you’re trying to lose weight (or keep it off).

One of the brands that’s long been associated with health is Cheerios. As breakfast cereals go, it’s one of the better choices, with only 100 calories per cup and very little added sugar (one gram). But the non-sugary part still translates into 17 grams of simple carbohydrates. And a cup of Cheerios is a smaller portion than many adults will eat for breakfast. My experience is that many bowls in a normal kitchen are actually big enough for two cups, so if you are in the habit of filling your bowl up with Cheerios every morning, you are essentially eating a candy bar’s worth of carbohydrates for breakfast.

The same is true for Wheaties (comparable nutrition information to Cheerios), Total and Special K, though the latter two at least have a number of vitamins sprayed onto them during processing. We won’t get into the more sugary cereals (which include cereals you might not even think about, like Honey Nut Cheerios and Frosted Mini-Wheats), but suffice it to say that many of them in their recommended serving size have the same number of carbohydrates as a candy bar, and in some cases, far more.

Oatmeal is another product that seems healthy, but which is, in fact, loaded with sugar and carbohydrates. One cup of oatmeal has somewhere between 25-30 carbohydrates to start. Often, another three to four sugar cubes’ worth of sugar (or half a candy bar) are added in. A cup of oatmeal can have as much sugar as a single Pop-Tart. And before you go on believing that Pop-Tarts are healthy, consider that they come in packs of two, and that eating two frosted strawberry pop-tarts is the equivalent of having two Snickers bars for breakfast.


Example 2: Sports Drinks

Sports drinks (and their cousins, energy drinks) are frequently consumed by people who believe that they’re living healthy lifestyles. There are some benefits to sports drinks (such as providing electrolytes to replenish the body more quickly after a tough workout), but most of those benefits aren’t useful to anyone but the highest-performing athletes. In most other situations, it’s best to just drink water and have a piece of fruit.

Gatorade is the most common sports drink, an Vitaminwater is a competing brand that has a definite “healthy” image. But while these drinks might seem healthy, they’re not so different from drinking a can of Coke or Pepsi because it’s loaded with sugar. 8 ounces of Gatorade yields 14 grams of sugars. 8 ounces of Coca-Cola Classic or Pepsi yields 27 grams of sugars. Ounce for ounce, Gatorade and Vitaminwater are the healthier choices, but keep in mind that they’re designed to be consumed in larger quantities.

Vitaminwater has recently been under fire for marketing itself as healthy when it’s really not. Gatorade has weathered these storms as well. As it happens, Gatorade does has a “diet” brand called Propel that uses artificial sweeteners instead of sugar. It’s a far healthier choice because it adds some nutrients (and even electrolytes) into water without dumping in a bunch of sugar.


Example 3: Quick-Service / Fast Food

It’s hard to believe that anyone would believe that fast food could be healthy. And yet McDonald’s, in an effort to shed its unhealthy image a few years ago, has really aggressively pursued a healthy marketing agenda. They use the same tricks – skinny letters on menus, pictures of fresh salads, items that sound healthy when they’re really not (like instant oatmeal). McDonald’s even prints calories on the menu board now. But almost every item on the menu includes a bun or other type of bread (28 grams of carbohydrates), and the other signature items McDonald’s has to offer are french fries (29 grams of carbohydrates in the small bag size) and fountain Coca-Cola (27 grams of carbohydrates per 8 ounces consumed). So, a medium-sized 2 cheeseburgers value meal, which is one of the most popular choices, yields somewhere in the neighborhood of 160 grams of carbohydrates — the equivalent of about five Snickers bars.

McDonald’s is far from the only fast food restaurant to attempt to use a healthy image. Subway adopted a healthy image over a decade ago and it’s paid huge dividends in helping to establish the brand as a sort of counterweight to burger chains. And yet most of the six-inch subs contain around 50 grams of carbohydrates, with potato chips tacking on another 15 grams and a medium soda tacking on another 60-70. A five-dollar footlong sub, then, puts a diner into the same position they’d be in if they’d eaten at a restaurant like McDonald’s.

Incidentally, several people have gone on diets consisting of only Subway or McDonald’s food and actually lost weight. Their secret hasn’t been the food, however; it’s been sticking to the regular portions and not tacking on deserts, drink refills or extra sandwiches. Also, simply cutting out the sugary drinks (or switching to diet beverages) cuts out a third of the carbohydrates and calories from the meal.


My point in all of this is to point out that there are plenty of products that have been successfully marketed as healthy when, in fact, they’re not all that different from foods that are considered tremendously unhealthy, like candy. What’s even more perplexing is that some of these brands do offer healthier alternatives to the food they’re marketing, but rather than focusing on pushing these items as the healthy choice, they instead focus on making the most popular items seem like they’re better for you than they really are.

One reason for this, I suspect, is that consumers really don’t want to hear that they have to make healthier choices. They’d rather be all right with the choices they’re already making. It’s so much easier to hear that Cheerios are a healthy part of your day than to hear that you should avoid breakfast cereals altogether and focus on eating fruit and protein. After all, fruit and protein don’t come in a big yellow box with a logo that looks like a smile.* There’s comfort in good branding. And comfort is often preferable to making sacrifices for your long-term health.

*Actually, it occurs to me that bananas do look like a yellow smile if you lay them on their side. But Cheerios does such a better job of making that smile seem to mean something.

Jan 18

IN THE NEWS: Who’d Think of Buying $200 Headphones? (How What’s Old Can Be Made New Again)

I have to admit that I’m not what you’d call an audiophile. I like music and listen to it daily, but I don’t mind using my $10 ear buds to listen to highly-compressed MP3s from a cloud service like Google Play or Spotify. It’s just not a big deal to me to have high-end headphones, especially considering the rate at which I break them.

And that’s one of the reasons I’ve been quite surprised at the success of the Beats by Dre headphones, which run around $200-300 per pair and which are primarily designed to amplify the bass signal on digital music. The success of this headphone line is no small thing; it’s made musician Dr. Dre into the world’s highest-paid musician and become a fashion accessory in its own right. That’s thanks in part to the headphones being prominently placed in music videos and endorsed by other popular musicians like Lady GaGa, Justin Bieber and Eminem.

When I first saw these headphones start appearing on shelves, I felt like they were something of a specialty item, really made for those who consider themselves DJs or who are hardcore music fans. Given that the last ten years have been about moving from music as a physical good to music as a digital collection and that the device that you use to listen to music has become the focus of many consumers’ purchases, I really didn’t forsee headphones, which come pre-packed with digital music players, as being a great area of growth.

In hindsight, what I ignored was the fact that music is more than just an activity; it’s a lifestyle. Young people often distinguish themselves by the music they listen to, and showing that they’re willing to spend a couple of hundred bucks on their headphones helps others to know how serious they really are. Being seen with the right headphones is just as important as having superior sound. And while true audiophiles roll their eyes at the thought that anyone would spend a lot of money on headphones and then listen to music encoded in a format such as a 128 kbps MP3 (which lowers the sound quality due to its compression algorithms), it’s not really about the quality; it’s about the statement.

And that’s a statement that more and more people seem to want to make now that digital music players have become a commodity. An article in Time this week talks about how Beats by Dre has not only kicked off one of the fastest-growing areas in consumer electronics, but how other musicians and celebrities are jumping on the *ahem* bandwagon.

Jan 17

IN THE NEWS: So You Have 29 Brands On Your Facebook Friends List. So What?

Facebook may be a perpetual whipping boy these days, but I’ve got to admit that it’s done something really important for marketing over the last five years – it’s helped marketers to be able to conceptualize what a social network can do to improve B2C communications.

Unfortunately for Facebook, however, the technology and techniques that will one day revolutionize marketing are still in their infancy, and it’s doubtful that Facebook is going to be the platform in which a lot of the most serious changes take hold.

Take, for example, this article from AdWeek, which offers some striking infographics about social media users. Adults age 18-49 are likely to have 278 human friends on Facebook and 29 brand friends, and yet only 39% of those adults say they interact with the brands on their friends list regularly.

What’s more, the graphic cites some agreement statements that are fairly representative of the negative sentiment towards brands online. 24% of adults say that they only interact with brands so they can get a deal being offered. 21% feel like brands try to accumulate large numbers of followers but then fail to follow up with a digital community. 18% feel like brands come off as insincere, and 17% get annoyed with brands trying to interact with them.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of brands have been victims of the same sorts of self-proclaimed experts who were hawking SEO solutions a few years ago. Marketers attend a workshop or listen to a webinar, hear these gurus talk about how great social media is, and then adopt a strategy of building up a Facebook page or Twitter feed with no real strategy for interacting with consumers. The thing is, it’s easy to set up shop and offer great deals to grow something on the internet. If you’re giving away a valuable coupon or something free, you can get people to click that “Like” button. But the digital party won’t last long if you don’t find ways to sincerely engage that audience.

One of the mistakes I see a lot of brands make is in trying to start a conversation. There’s nothing wrong with conversational marketing if it’s done well, but you’ve got to find a way to moderate that discussion without being obtrusive. Imagine if you were invited to a fun party, but the host kept interrupting your discussions with others to talk about himself. Or, even worse, if he asked you questions designed to get you to tell him how great you think he is. On a site like Facebook, that sort of narcissism is easily ignored with a quick click on the “hide” button.

As it happens, brands that do a good job of social marketing have a much more comprehensive strategy than just setting up shop on Facebook. One brand that has done an incredible job of building up a strong social media community is Sony’s Playstation brand. It started a few years ago with an official Playstation Blog, which Sony’s marketing team essentially just used for talking about sales and promotions about Playstation systems and accessories and content on the Playstation Network’s digital games store. This blog is accessible via the Web and also via the 73 million Playstation 3 consoles that are currently in homes around the world.

But Sony saw that some of its readers were highly engaged with the brand and wanted to use the blog to provide feedback and to know that they were being heard. These fans were often quite passionate about the brand and willing to spend money on premium digital content if they felt strongly enough about its quality and utility. So Sony not only empowered its social media team to begin responding directly to blog commenters, but also began to improve the scope of its blog to include game developers from other companies so that they could have direct interaction with the fans. They also empowered some of their marketing team members to start an official podcast (promoted on the blog) and began increasing their video content. Today, most of the blog posts get hundreds of responses within a few hours.

And how are they using their Facebook page, which has 29 million likes? To drive users to their offsite content, primarily. But also to use Facebook for what it excels at doing – sharing videos and beautitful visual content. Playstation users can go on the brand’s Facebook page and find nicely maintained photo albums for games and accessories, which helps to highlight the platform’s lovely form factor and the graphical capabilities of the Playstation 3 console and the Playstation Vita handheld.

With such a large audience listening, Sony can cross-promote some of its other services (such as Video Unlimited and Music Unlimited, both of which are available on the Playstation platform). Even there, they’re careful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Sony treat this social media platform as a means of trying to boost sales of other product likes (such as TVs, eReaders or music players) or to try to boost sales. They cultivate a sort of cool enthusiasm for the Playstation brand, and it keeps the fans engaged without feeling like they’re being marketed to.

Granted, Playstation is an enthusiast brand – it has passionate fans who line up to buy new hardware and games. But it’s also a good example of how a global brand has managed to leverage its strengths to build a strong digital community. What they’re doing won’t work for every brand, but it’s worth studying all the same.

Jan 16

IN THE NEWS: Yet Another Sign that Apple has Peaked on the PLC

Another day, yet another article about how Apple is losing its grip on Wall Street. This won’t bode well for the future; I have a feeling that 2013 and 2014 are going to be years that show a real transition for Apple, and we’re going to see a rapid acceleration of product announcements and market entries as Apple tries to recapture the magic that’s currently slipping through its fingers.

Contrary to what my iPhone-owning colleagues might think, I’m not an Apple fan or a detractor; I’m simply a skeptic. For as long as I’ve casually used Apple products (going all the way back to the black and white Macintosh computers in my school’s computer lab), I’ve admired Apple’s sense of simple style but disliked how Apple products force me, as a consumer, to bend my will to the “accepted” way of doing things. (Windows PCs and Android phones, by contrast, offer me almost too many ways to do what I need to do, but for someone like myself who enjoys customization and power using my devices, that’s important.)

At the same time, I understand Apple’s mass appeal. In this era of rapid technological change, people who aren’t tech-savvy need simple, easy-to-use devices that allow them to do cool things without having to learn a lot of ins and outs for software. Apple’s very good at delivering on that promise, and there’s no question that the iPhone changed the course of history by popularizing the movement to take computers off desks and laps and putting them into peoples’ pockets. (The iPad is really just a brand extension of that.) Apple’s strength is not in products, but in marketing; their competitors run circles around them trying to outdo Apple on features or specs, always failing to understand that Apple approaches things not from an engineering perspective, but from the user experience.

But as I’ve said before on this blog, a lot of what Apple has accomplished over the last decade was due to the presence of an uncompromising visionary who put his legacy ahead of his shareholders. This paid huge dividends, of course; Apple went from being a brand on life support to the tech giant in the world, eclipsing all of its competition (including the hegemony of Microsoft) by finding a new market space and exploiting it. But at the same time, I think many people recognized that the death of Steve Jobs also spelled the beginning of the end for what Apple has accomplished. They’ve peaked, and the next decade is going to be the beginning of the end for their rise to prominence.

This doesn’t surprise me a bit, because Apple, much like any product manufacturer, is following the product life cycle. Because they only really make a few products, it’s very easy to see the progression for each of their product lines. In my estimation, the iPod, the iPhone/iPad and the MacBooks are really the three pillars of what Apple’s got to offer, and two of these three product lines have entered into the maturity plateau while the third (the iPhone/iPad) is nearing it.

Let’s step back for a moment and examine the product life cycle, because it’s quite clear where Apple’s iPhone fits into it. The first section of the product life cycle is the early adoption phase. Apple enjoyed this phase like few tech giants do, because the iPhone received massive attention as it ramped up for launch in 2008 and sold out almost immediately thanks to the hordes of early adopters who didn’t mind waiting in line. The iPhone was initially hard to get and restricted to a single carrier in the US; you had to work to get one. All of the hype created massive demand for the device, leading to an extraordinary introduction and a massive growth phase.

Because the iPhone is a device that receives constant upgrades and because smartphones as a category have a built-in “trade up” mentality every two years, Apple has able to release new versions of the iPhone every year and sell even more phones. And because other mobile carriers wanted a piece of the action, Apple was able to get the phone into more and more sales channels, to the point that consumers could even buy an iPhone at Walmart. At the same time, the competition began to get closer and closer to replicating Apple’s product through the Android operating system, and though that market has been highly fragmented, it has proven to be a viable alternative for consumers who are not interested in Apple products for one reason or another.

All of these events follow the product life cycle precisely. And at the same time, the two consumer pools who tend to be affected by this segment of the life cycle (innovators/early adopters, who make up around 16% of the total consumer base over a product’s life, and the early majority, which makes up another 34%) bought lots and lots of iPhones.

But as of 2013, we can see that things are changing. For one thing, the iPhone’s really losing its grip on the culture. It’s become an ubiquitous device, and having one isn’t quite so cool anymore as it used to be. I see exasperated moms handing them to their kids in the grocery store to play with; I see senior citizens carrying them around; I see people unironically wearing past decades’ fashions pulling them out and using them to snap pictures. These are all indications that the iPhone is now being purchased by the late majority (another 34% of the consumer pool), which is made up of people who tend to get in on the back ends of trends when prices come down and products are widely available.

Apple knows this, and they’re panicking, because being at this stage in the product life cycle is bad if you’ve got investors who want you to keep making money for them. That’s precisely why Apple’s rumored to be working on a lower cost iPhone and why they’re rushing to get an iPhone 6 to market. The iPhone 5 was their bestselling edition of the iPhone to date, but a lot of that had to do with upgrades and sales to the late majority. In other words, the product is demonstrating that it’s now in the maturity phase, and that can only mean two things: revenues will level off as unit price falls and demand begins to plateau, and eventually, Apple’s going to see the product enter the decline phase, where the only group of people left to serve are the consumer pool known as the laggards (16%) who come at the tail end of a trend.

In the meantime, the iPad is going through much the same process. Many of the people who wanted tablet computers now have them, and the marketplace for tablets has begun to quicken and mature because of all of the competition brought by eReaders that evolved into tablets (such as the Nook and the Kindle) in opposition to the iPad. The fact that Apple released an iPad Mini in 2012 to compete with the market rather than to lead it is a sign of market maturity. People will still buy iPads, but the plateau is here.

So, what does that mean for Apple? My guess is that over the next several years, we’re going to see them desperately trying to hold on to their relevance and that they’ll probably try to enter a new market space and recapture the magic of the iPhone. Some have suggested that they’re heading into the living room to revolutionize TV, while others have suggested that Apple’s going to try to revolutionize higher education. I suspect they’re going to flounder a bit looking for the right opportunity and ultimately follow the path of Microsoft, creating an unending line of product upgrades while slowly losing their customer base to competitors who are able to move past broad appeal and target niches.

Yes, the day is coming when Apple isn’t going to be cool anymore. They’ve been there before. But this time, unfortunately, they won’t be able to bring back Steve Jobs to revitalize the brand.

Jan 11

IN THE NEWS: 10 of the Most Hated Companies in America

Yahoo! Finance ran an interesting list today featuring a rogues’ gallery of hated companies. The usual suspects are well-represented here – mobile phone companies, TV service providers, airlines, banks – but I was really surprised to see JC Penney on the list.

It really doesn’t surprise me that JC Penney is doing poorly; a couple of years ago, they announced their plan to completely alter their pricing in their stores eliminate sales and decimals so that consumers could find simple, low prices on mid-level quality goods. It was certainly a bold choice, but also, in my estimation, a fairly stupid one that dismissed years of consistent research data suggesting that deep discounts (even from artificially high prices) and frequent sales are more enticing to consumers than everyday low prices. (Even Walmart, which specializes in everyday low prices, has sales, “rollback” prices and other indications of deep discounting.)

Here’s what Yahoo! has to say on the matter:

J.C. Penney went from being a mediocre national retailer with modest challenges to one of the great public company management disasters of the last few years. Former Apple retail chief Ron Johnson joined as CEO in November 2011, and promptly decided to radically change the chain’s pricing policy. The negative reaction was immediate. Sales fell 20% in the first full quarter after Johnson began to implement his plans, and the company continued to lose sales at a rapid rate. Customers defected in droves as a sign of their dissatisfaction with the new retail model laid out by Johnson. And with its stock falling more than 40% since Johnson joined, shareholder are also livid with the company, which has also completely eliminated its dividend. Durban Capital’s retail analyst Steve Kernkraut recently said, “It’s been a disaster, and it probably will continue to be a disaster. They’ve made every misstep you could imagine.”

It’s sad to see an old, established brand like JC Penney wasting away so shamefully — it’s almost like watching an elderly person being robbed by a younger relative who’s got access to the checkbook and who keeps covering up self-indulgent spending with crazy lies and nonsensical strategies.

I should add that none of the other major department store chains are faring any better. Sears Holdings (which just lost its CEO) is struggling to stay relevant and is shuttering K-Mart stores all over the country to try to keep its entire operation from going under. Macy’s just closed several high-profile stores, and while it’s opening some new ones, the company isn’t performing at a strong level and was recently downgraded along with Penney’s and Kohl’s.

Still, Penney’s seems to be the poster child for poor decisions. It’s going to make a great case study in a business school textbook one day (along with other recent boom-to-bust companies like Blockbuster, Best Buy and, well, just about all of the 10 Most Hated Companies Yahoo! references), but it’ll still be sad to see it go.

Jan 07

IN THE NEWS: It Turns Out Health Care Provider Ratings Aren’t So Reliable…

Photo credit: MS Office

One of the things that we discuss often around the office is how reliable (or rather, how unreliable) crowdsourced review sites for service providers can be. For example, I’m a frequent contributor to Yelp!, and I use Yelp! to discover new restaurants and businesses around town or to find local hotspots when I’m traveling. But I’ll be the first to admit that until a business’s reviews reach a critical mass with dozens of independent reviews, the ratings you’ll find can be quite unreliable.

Case in point: yesterday, my wife and I stopped in a sandwich shop in Columbia, MO that was highly rated by 14 Yelp users (and was, in fact, the highest-rated quick service restaurant in town). The reviews all talked about how good the food is, but most failed to mention that the place is dingy and dirty, that the booth seating is worn to the point of having visible tears, that there’s no seating for small children and that there’s no restroom. This was a three or four-star restaurant at best. (Honestly, I felt like even the food was overrated; the hyped-up veggie sub was good, but far from the best I’ve ever eaten.)

The problem with user reviews on sites like Yelp! (or even on retail sites like Amazon.com) is that they’re completely unqualified. The reader has no idea what the writer’s purpose in authoring a review is, or how qualified the reviewer is to have any opinion at all. Some are just trying to be helpful, but others have realized that they can use reviews to their advantage. When I worked in product marketing, I was repeatedly contacted by people who labeled themselves a “top Amazon.com reviewer” who wanted free product in exchange for an Amazon.com review.

It’s also quite common for small businesses to attempt to boost their profile by having friends and employees write “sock puppet” reviews that extol the virtues of the business to fool those looking into review sites into thinking that they’re going to be delighted. This sort of behavior typically catches up with genuinely bad businesses quickly (as real reviewers gradually add to the body of work), but mediocre businesses rarely inspire people to write negative reviews to counter positive ones since they’ll be more likely to assume that they just went on an off day.

All of this brings me to an article I saw on NPR’s website over the weekend about user review sites for physicians. Simply put, the article says that studies are showing that these sites don’t work and aren’t worth consulting, because they have a strong tendency to attract a small number of negative reviews rather than a large amount of honest feedback. For example, if one patient gives a negative review to a urologist and only three patients have posted a review, that one review carries a tremendous amount of weight on the online profile. But it is unlikely to be representative of how the majority of patients feel, and in fact may be entirely idiosyncratic.

Here’s a snippet from the article that cites some of the findings of the studies:

The 500 urologists surveyed averaged 2.4 reviews on 10 physician-ranking websites, with total reviews per doctor ranging from 64 to zero. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, at 86 percent. But the negative reviews focused more on things like office decor than whether the doctor delivered good health care.

But this study suggests that information from crowdsourced doctor-ranking sites should be taken with a grain of salt, Ellimoottil says. He became interested in the topic when he Googled a prominent surgeon for a research project. “He had a Healthgrades ranking that was 5 out of 5. The next one down was Vitals, and it was 2 out of 5. The reviews were 180 degrees different.”

Another study published in early 2012 in the Journal of Medical Internet Researchfound some correlation between online ratings and quality of Virginia doctors. Overall, the ratings were positive. Patients were most critical about punctuality and staff. Still, like the study of urologists’ ratings, this one found ratings were often based on the experience of just a few patients, about three, on average.

The problem is that the patient-physician relationship is difficult to rate because of the complexity of the service that is being offered. Other types of user reviews make sense because they’re measuring a simple aspect of a transaction: A product review is about the value of a product; a restaurant review is about the experience of going to a restaurant; a transaction review on eBay is about helping others to know whether or not an individual can be trusted.

But a physician’s primary job is to ensure that a patient remains well. The experience of waiting to see the physician can be uncomfortable, and the physician might not be very good at interacting with people (and yet still an excellent healer). The patient has no real way of understanding a physician’s level of skill or competence, and can only really rely on the subjective experience of seeing the doctor or the testimonials of others.

Health care quality is something that can be objectively measured, and it is measured by health care organizations. But this quality is outcomes-based rather than perceptual. It’s also not widely available to patients or easy for them to understand.

While it’s a nice idea that a physician can be rated online like a restaurant or a product, the reality is that any site purporting to grade doctors should really focus on objective criteria and use testimonials as a means of providing commentary. And even then, those testimonials should be filtered to flag extremely negative comments as being the experience of one person and not necessarily representative of the patients of the physician as a whole.


Aug 29

IN THE NEWS: How to Kill a Brand, Apple Store Edition

Photo Source: ArsTechnica.com

As someone who’s worked in retail before and who’s learned a lot of tough lessons about finding the balance between good customer service and corporate compliance, I have to say that I’ve always had a lot of respect for the way that Apple has approached retailing with its Apple Stores. The St. Louis store is just down the street from my office in the St. Louis Galleria, and the original store was so successful that it had to be moved to a storefront three or four times as large just to handle the massive amounts of traffic the store was generating. And what’s more, even with a much larger floorspace, the place is still constantly packed.

Compare that to the Best Buy or the Micro Center around the corner, and you’ll still find plenty of people buying electronics, but both stores are significantly larger and combined don’t seem to generate half as much foot traffic as the Apple store does. That’s hardly a surprise, since Apple Stores are reported as being more profitable per square foot than high-end jewelry stores like Tiffany’s.

But that may change over the next decade, and there could come a time where Apple Stores are a black eye for the brand.

I know, I know. It sounds crazy. But if you read this op-ed on Ars Technica, you’ll see that things are changing for the Apple Stores largely due to a shift in management. The new senior VP of retail, John Browett, comes from a UK consumer electronics retailer called Dixons Retail that has stores like PC World and Curry’s that are pretty much everything the Apple stores aren’t – namely, dark, dirty, crowded with product, and staffed by salespeople who are focused on upselling high-margin items instead of helping customers make the best decisions.

The op-ed goes on to explain that the stores are going to be less staffed during the holiday season and that financial incentives have changed for the employees. What’s worse, sales personnel are going to be encouraged to push payment through the EasyPay service (used through the iPhone), which isn’t tracked in their sales numbers. Demoralizing the staff and forcing them to do things that don’t make sense? That sounds more like Best Buy than Apple, doesn’t it?

Part of the appeal of Apple Stores is that they’re low-pressure, uncluttered and clean, putting an emphasis on the products rather than sales tactics. The people on the floor are extremely well-trained and know the ins and outs of everything being sold. The prices are high (most items are marked at full retail), but consumers are happy to pay them because they know that the experience is going to be great. Apple has hit on the perfect mix for retailing: a restricted, high-quality product line, showcased under the best possible conditions with the highest quality staff, and a brand that is both respected and considered “cool.”

It’s well-known that consumers hate high-pressure sales tactics, clutter and junk, and they’re only willing to put up with that nonsense if they believe they’re getting a deal. That’s fine if you’re carrying a bunch of product from no-name suppliers and you’re catering to bargain shoppers. But now that Amazon, specialty retailers and discount stores have risen to meet that niche, it’s not a game that a superior brand like Apple needs to play.

It’s one of those decisions that demonstrates why Apple under Steve Jobs was something special, and why Apple under Tim Cook is destined to decline. Over the last fifteen years, Apple has rebuilt its brand from a niche to the most valuable brand in the world. It’s proven that marketing can really begin at the product level rather than with an ad firm – Apple’s been so savvy and so cutting-edge as an expert at marketing that textbooks are going to use it as a case study company for years to come.

But now that the visionary CEO is gone and the money men are in charge, I predict that Apple’s brand is going to go through the wringer and emerge as a husk that only hints at its former glory. It happened once before, of course. But this time, the company won’t have a visionary to bring back when things start going awry.

Read the full op-ed at Ars Technica.

Jul 17

Using social media as a qualitative research tool.

Photo Credit: joelaz (flickr.com)

Social media is not just a way for people to update others on what they are eating for dinner or other mundane details. It is also more than simply a marketing tool for companies and organizations. Social media can be incredibly useful when trying to garner qualitative research insights.

In an issue of “Quirks”, a marketing research review periodical, an article explained how researchers can appropriately use consumer generated posts on social media networks to glean insights into a product or service industry. Monitoring what is said on social media can help you gain some context before talking to consumers via interviews or focus groups.

Firstly, exploring what is said on social media helps determine what topics need further engagement. What aspects of a product or service are people confused about? Are people aware of your new service line or is there no mention of it anywhere? You can look for hot topics that may come up in a focus group. If you know what’s talked about the most among consumers regarding a product or service, you can be better prepared when engaging participants in a focus group or interview.

Social media can also be implemented as the first stage in a research study. Mining posts and comments on social media sites can help pinpoint areas that consumers care about the most. If you’re starting off with a broad topic, such as “What do people think about electronics”, you can craft a less vague objective if you look over what is being said by consumers everywhere.

You are also able to observe consumers in their natural setting. You can listen to people who are familiar with the product chat candidly about what they like about the product, what complaints they have, what their expectations are, or how they use the product. In addition, you can quickly pick up on the terminology and nuances surrounding a brand, product or industry.

Lastly, using social media as a research tool can also serve as an avenue to recruit respondents for qualitative research. Brand advocates can generally be found connecting with brands on social media channels.

How have you found social media to be useful during your research process? Let us know!

Jul 11

IN THE NEWS: What news medium is most trusted by Americans?

Photo Credit: wili hybrid (flickr.com)

If you heard that Justin Bieber had died (again) what news medium would you turn to so you can verify the validity of the story? Would you go to an online news source? Would you turn on the TV? Or would you wait for a radio DJ to mention it?

According to eMarketer, research from Triton Digital found that television is still the most trusted form of media for consumers. 45% of respondents trust the news and information that is reported by TV stations. TV is followed by newspaper, then the radio. Only 1 in 8 respondents listed online news sources as their most trusted source. A “60 Minutes”/Vanity Fair poll found that 32% of respondents chose CNN as the most trustworthy news source. 29% chose Fox News.

But due to the convenience and timeliness of online news sources, traditional media has definitely suffered in terms of garnering consumer time and attention, especially radio and print. Even though the Internet was not listed as the most trustworthy source, respondents were more likely to turn to the Internet for product research and reviews during the purchase process. This means that online marketing can make the difference between consideration and an actual purchase.

The interactions between high schoolers and news mediums are interesting because there seems to be an inconsistency between what they say and what they do. The Knight Foundation conducted a survey of high schoolers and found that 92% of high schoolers say that it is important to stay informed on current news. Most turned to TV for news, followed by reading an online article, watching video news online, and lastly reading the newspaper. However, their choices do not match with the sources they believe to be the most trustworthy. Though they are least likely to read newspapers for news, 88% of respondents said that newspapers are very or somewhat truthful. 78% say that television is very or somewhat truthful. Only 34% said that social networks are very or somewhat truthful.

However, even though high school students distrust the accuracy of news disseminated via social media, 56% of teens still reported that social networks were a daily source of news and information. This is not entirely surprising to me. I follow numerous news sources on Twitter and they update their Twitter feeds every few minutes. Thanks to a tweet by a major news station, I was among the first in my network of friends to hear about bin Laden’s death.

However, the next time I see “RIP Justin Bieber” trending on Twitter again, I am still going to double check my sources…

Jul 05

Tell a story with video reports.

Photo Credit: jsawkins (flickr.com)

Video reports can serve as a great deliverable to clients as long as they are executed with the right goal in mind. There are situations in which video reports work well and some situations in which they are not needed. You can tell almost right away… for example, video reports are probably not useful if you’re simply looking to capture clips of customers giving one word answers about the benefits of a product or service.

According to the Spring 2012 issue of QRCA Views, there are two types of video reports: consultant led and self directed (video diary). The ideal length is about 15 to 20 minutes long. Video reports are most useful when you are trying to capture changing facial expressions, body language, or a decision making process where consumers are trying to explain something. Showcase an insight you’ve discovered and make sure to shape a story around it. How does using a cleaning product makes moms feel like she’s protecting her family? How do college students use a particular product compared to how Baby Boomers use it?  People remember stories, not slogans.

The goal of a video is the capture a full process, highlighting interactions rather than simple, isolated reactions from respondents. It’s important to tell a story. Follow through a consumer’s journey from awareness to interest, from evaluation to trial and finally to adoption/rejection.

Video reports are also a popular method of interviewing for home ethnographies when you want to record consumers using products in their natural setting.

Here are a couple of keys to a successful video to keep in mind:

  • Get the message across in the first 30 seconds of the video. Viewers have less patience with multimedia deliverables.
  • Start with a controversy or bold statement. Highlight questions that respondents ask.
  • Set a conversational tone throughout the video. Keep introductions brief.
  • Divide your story into themes so it is organized and easy to follow.

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