November 8, 2013

5 Invaluable Lessons from Virgin

For many entrepreneurs Richard Branson is the epitome of bold and successful entrepreneurship.  His companies are known around the globe for upturning their categories and challenging the status quo.  While executives and the press clamor to meet the man himself, far less is written about the unique training ground that his companies have been for entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and marketers.  While Harvard Business School gave me an indispensable foundation in general management, Virgin offered unparalleled lessons in building businesses that remain true regardless of industry, audience, or trend.

1.  Your product is your most important form of marketing.
Long gone are the days when an ad campaign could hide a multitude of sins.  In today’s highly connected world, positive and negative word of mouth spreads like wildfire.  Virgin invests in developing stand-out products and services that are measurably different from their competition, and that their customers love with near obsession.  Case in point:  Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class.  No focus group could have foretold the need for business class travel with mood lighting and a stand-up bar.  Yet by investing in a measurably different, better product, Virgin can spend 1/10th the funds on advertising that its competition does, and carries a much less costly loyalty program.  By focusing on “points of re-evaluation” or experiential touchpoints that differ dramatically from what’s expected in the category, like the spa pool in their airline lounge, or the inflight massage, customers not only begin to think differently about the status quo, but they are  more likely to tell their friends.  The virtuous cycle of word of mouth begins!

Here’s a technology counterpart:  Mint.  By focusing on solving a pain point with delightfully elegant UI, Mint experienced record-breaking adoption that led to its acquisition by Intuit only 3 years after its founding.  Like Virgin, Mint didn’t invest in costly ad campaigns or even multi-touch nurturing- instead press and word of mouth drove incredible adoption because it made managing finances  just.that.easy.

Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 11.52.42 AM

Virgin Atlantic’s category-defying Upper Class Suite reset the bar for transatlantic business class travel.

Richard Branson celebrates Virgin Atlantic's 25th Anniversary

Richard Branson celebrates Virgin Atlantic’s 25th Anniversary









I will never forget the last time a product literally made me shiver.  It was 5am and my taxi arrived at the curb at the airport.  At that hour, I was clumsily gathering my luggage and fishing for cash.  The cab driver noticed my disheveled state and said “I take cards” and he slid my Amex through a tiny white box attached to his smartphone with great ease.  I signed with my finger and a receipt appeared automatically in my inbox.  “Oh my gosh, what’s that called?” I asked incredulously.  It was Square.  In the next 24 hours, I mentioned it to no fewer than 5 people.  It was so incredibly different than what I expected- so delightfully easy to pay on the go- that I had to spread the word.

In my next post, lesson #2:  you can’t afford to blend.


September 25, 2009

Viral Loops: From Tupperware to Ning and Beyond

In early October Adam Penenberg’s new book will be released Viral Loop: From Facebook to Twitter How Today’s Smartest Businesses Growth Themselves. While I’m a bit envious that he’s published a book on a topic that has been the subject of so many of my conversations with entrepreneurs in the past year, he first covered the topic in April 2008 for Fast Company in an astute article on the growth of Ning.

While I haven’t read an early preview of the book, here’s why I’m excited. In my conversations with CEOs of companies that sell both virtual and physical products, tough times have created a very basic need to get close to their customers, to develop exceptional products that deliver true value, so consumers are willing to part with their declining discretionary income. The exuberance of astronomical valuations is gone, and leaders are more likely to be out in the field building business rather than in the corner office. Build a fantastic product that delights someone, and that person is likely to recommend it to a friend. What is viral, fundamentally? It is something that is passed along, exponentially, so that one person tells two people, who each tell two more, etc. It’s a process as old as fire itself, elegantly accelerated by the internet.

As Marc Andreesen states in Fast Company’s feature on Ning, “a viral loop is something that incorporates virality into the function of the product.” If you haven’t heard of Ning, the most familiar illustrative example today is Facebook, where the product only has value if you invite others to join you, then those who have joined from your invitation create their own networks by inviting more of their friends. A virtuous cycle of growth. Tupperware and Avon are examples in the physical world, where one purchases the products from a friend or acquaintance at an event, yet also has the opportunity to become a rep and sell the items to their own networks.

What’s missing from this discussion of viral loops? While most discussion to date has focused on the growth mechanism of these networks, few have articulated the benefits consumers receive from being part of them. The Tupperware parties of the 60’s and 70’s weren’t just about creating financial independence among housewives, the events built and supported social relationships and connection, and fostered esteem as reps were engaged in new work. All of these psychological benefits are components of happiness and well-being, according to icons like Maslow and respected psychologist Diener. Suddenly passing along Smirnoff’s Tea Party video doesn’t seem so trivial.

How can companies that create physical goods, such as beverages or books, capitalize on the virtuous circle know as viral loops? While I don’t have all the answers, I’ll suggest it’s not just about the utility and connection between a consumer and a product, but the psychological benefits and rewards in sharing insight, expertise, and being connected within their social circle. While a bottle of Bailey’s doesn’t come with a “pass along” button, enabling a night of Bailey’s tasting parties in homes with new cocktail recipes creates an opportunity for connection, sharing, and memories among friends.

What do you think of viral loops?

July 14, 2009

Job Opening or Savvy Marketing Campaign?

Image from The Best Job in the World Campaign

Image from The Best Job in the World Campaign

On May 5th, amid a flurry of press coverage a 34 year-old British man won “the best job in the world”: the opportunity to live on a small island off Australia and get paid to feed the fish and blog about the experience. In June the masterminds behind the dream job campaign, Australian agency CumminsNitro, scooped up three Grand Prix Lion awards for direct, PR, and interactive results that drove awareness of the islands off the Great Barrier Reef for the Queensland Tourism Bureau. The stats are quite stunning: 36,600 entries from aspirational experience-seekers around the globe, an estimated $100M in press coverage in 8 target countries, and nearly 7M visits to the website

The campaign kicked off with job listings in print classifieds and on sites such as and glossy printed and interactive kits to press in the target countries. In a climate of job loss and dire news, the story spread like wildfire among hungry news outlets: “Looking for a job? You may want to consider a move to Australia!” And the imagination of the target audience was piqued, dreaming of a paid year spent on white sandy beaches. While the contest is over, the engagement continues with weekly blog posts by the new “island caretaker” that are punctuated by captivating video and flickr streams. Ultimately the measure of any successful tourism campaign is traffic to the destination, and Fast Company reports that Australian air carrier Virgin Blue launched a new flight to the featured island to keep pace with demand.

This spring a small winery in Sonoma County named Murphy-Goode launched a contest targeted at another genre of dream job seeker: “Wine Country Lifestyle Correspondent.” For six months the lucky winner will: “report on the cool lifestyle of Sonoma County Wine Country and, of course, tell people what you’re learning about winemaking” using social media. Like the island campaign, applicants are required to submit a 60 second video application, and entries have flooded the web. In fact, when googling Murphy Goode hundreds of applicant sites appear, including uber-enthusiastic entrants who have purchased url variations of the company’s brand name to host their videos. (A quality problem?) The campaign took off on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter and a winner will be announced on the site on July 21st.

A few thoughts on why these campaigns will ultimately drive revenue:

Customers not just influencers. The concept drove discussion among groups most likely to be prospective customers. Not generic, faceless groups we so often call “bloggers” and “twitterers” to drive coverage (although the target obviously engaged in both) but well-defined groups of prospective island visitors (“global experience seekers”) and wine drinkers/aficianados who are likely to be purchase the products as well as influence friends.
Brand engagement was built into the contest. How many of us wish our customers spent time pouring over our websites and pondering why our brands were perfect for them? Entrants were required to engage with the companies/brands to create video entries. To improve their chances of winning, they researched the island and winery and spent time creating a pitch on why they would be a perfect fit. After entering, they were well-educated consumers who were likely to think positively about the brand they just invested several hours in. The long duration of the contests (3 months) also assured entrants were likely to think about the brand, imagine winning, and tell their friends as they waited for the final result.
The concept struck a powerful chord due to cultural trends. The best marketing campaigns resonate powerfully because they connect with the cultural psyche at a moment in time. During the internet boom of the late 90’s, a job on an island or winery may not have driven incredible press coverage while twenty-somethings became paper millionaires after their companies went public. However in a time of record unemployment and financial uncertainty, a “paid dream job” captured our imagination in a way a “year-long dream vacation” could not.

Come across another job-opening as marketing campaign? Think the trend will continue? Add a comment below.

April 17, 2009

The Rubber Duck: Driving Talkable Moments in Your Consumer Experience

This week I’m going to dodge the Oprah/Twitter hype and unfortunate Dominos incident in favor of a little reminiscing. In 2001 I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk given by Professor Bernd Schmitt as a prospective student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He is known for his expertise in experiential marketing, and was sharing the story of an upscale hotel chain that placed rubber ducks in guest bathtubs as a delightful touch to make the stay memorable. The ducks then traveled home with the guests as a reminder of their stay at the hotel, a daily visible cue to return.

Recently I was reminded of this example when asked if companies can truly harness word of mouth as a marketing tool. In a prior post I mentioned that customer satisfaction does not predictably drive word of mouth: customer delight does. For many of us, delight seems a bit ethereal.Savvy brands engineer or amplify delightful “talkable” moments in their customer experience to drive word of mouth. What’s a talkable moment?

The Colonnade Hotel uses rubber ducks to drive word of mouth.   What's your duck?

The Colonnade Hotel uses rubber ducks to drive word of mouth. What's your duck?

Take a hint from your consumers. How do they describe you to a friend? At the Colonnade Hotel, many guests returned from their pleasing stay and mentioned the unusual rubber duck to their friends. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for rubber duck aficionados, this was copied widely and became less noteworthy. For Virgin Atlantic’s business class passengers, flyers return raving about the posh and entirely unexpected Heathrow Clubhouse with a spa pool. Do many flyers use the pool? No. But it certainly drives word of mouth!

What are triggers of discussion? Let’s use Facebook as an example. I was lunching with a colleague who had just returned from a reunion with her best friends from camp. They lost touch 20 years ago and found each other on Facebook. After hearing her story, I was similarly inspired to track down my best friend from camp, and proceeded to barrage anyone in my vicinity with the story. Was I likely to spontaneously articulate that I find Facebook rewarding because it allows me to connect more deeply with the people and interests in my life? No. Meeting my best friend from camp for drinks thanks to Facebook? Very easy to relate. And often led to a more in-depth conversation on why someone should join.

Amplifying. Can you guarantee that your potentially talkable moments will work predictably on everyone? Well, no. But you can use the insight to increase the odds that each consumer experiences that potentially talkable moment, and measure the outcome. Walk into the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse and you’re greeted by a concierge who will give first-timers a tour of the amenities. Hear a few heart-warming stories in the press about reunions driven by Facebook? What if users were asked to update their status with the most interesting person they connected with? You too may be inspired to give it a go and talk about it.

So, what’s your duck?

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