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Category: branding

Will VC backed startups create new mass brands?

27 January, 2014 (19:25) | branding, business design, technology | By: Shannon Clark

In the past few years there has been a rise in the number of VC backed firms that are building businesses designed to compete with some of the largest consumer packaged goods companies in the world. From VC backed shaving companies, diapers, soaps, eyeglasses and more there is a new wave of ventured backed consumer products companies that have arisen to prominence in the past few years. Many of these firms are raising vast amounts and seem to be doing quite well.

However reading the press about these companies I think many, perhaps including some of the entrepreneurs and investors, are missing key  opportunities.

See an article from TechCrunch on Jan 27th – which talks about venture backed companies such as Madison Reed, The Honest Company competing with Procter & Gamble, Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club that compete with Gillette (and though the article doesn’t mention them Schick) and a bunch of other firms. As the article notes venture backed consumer goods companies have raised over $1.1B in recent years with many companies that were distributors of products from other businesses moving into direct manufacturing. Harry’s recently raised over $125M to purchase their 90+ year old German manufacturing partner and Fab which has raised a lot of money recently purchased a supplier of custom furniture to bring that manufacturing capabilities in house.

What the article misses and what most startups in the space seem at least publicly to be missing is that great consumer products companies actually serve TWO (at least) customers.

Their marketing and brands are built to sell to individual consumers – with marketing and branding frequently being among the largest expenses of many consumer products companies (for at least some products likely being a larger component of the prices those goods sell to consumers at than the actual costs of to make say the soap). These are companies that have had a rich, often 100+ year history of building up their brands on a national and international scale.

But  all that work to build brands that consumers seek out are done, for the most part, to sell the goods once they are available in retail stores (or these days available online via ecommerce sites). While consumers see the individual brands and marketing efforts the big retailers see distribution integrations, inventory and order management, payments for shelf space and in-store marketing/promotions, volume discounts, special packaging or product variations and more. All designed to help retailers make more money selling the consumer products business’ products (and in the case of goods sold in grocery stores to attempt in many cases to be as attractive or more attractive for retailers than those retailer’s house or generic alternatives).

Few VC backed startups building consumer goods are focusing on distribution of those products into the larger retail marketplace. Harry’s via their recent acquisition is somewhat of an exception – the company they just bought makes private label razors for many retailers across Europe (primarily). A recent CNBC article about the deal also notes that they have a distribution deal with J Crew and Standard hotels.

Integrating with large retailers is a very different business than selling to individual consumers one at a time via a website (or mobile application). It involves integration into ERP systems. Capabilities to take orders from retailers with potentially 1000’s of locations, distribution warehouses and many other complex logistics and payment processes. All while selling at a wholesale price that allows for an attractive retail price point (with pressure from many retailers like Walmart to drive down the retail prices – often by driving margins to be as slim as possible). All while also expecting that partners will build global brands as well as targeted marketing to drive in-store (or online) sales of the brand via the retail partners.

Very tricky stuff – but if companies like Harry’s or The Honest Company really want to scale to take on the consumer goods giants they probably have to master the art of relationships with large retail channels. It is possible that one or more startups will find a way to reach mass scale via a digital only direct channel – but most likely they will require leveraging the investments in time (and brand) of mass retailers to reach truly mass scale of sales.

An alternative approach may be for some startups to take on the mass retailers with some new approaches that will help drive mass sales without the drawbacks of the big box model. Whether this is via crafting a network of retail channels from smaller stores (an approach that many smaller coffee roasters are starting to take as a national network of small cafes has started growing that buy beans from national smaller roasters) or whether it is via building up a startup into a mass scale, likely online first business. for example but there are 100’s of other large scale online retailers.

Some of the newer same-day delivery businesses may offer yet another opportunity – potentially a startup brand might find a way to bypass physical retail stores via offering inventory to such same day delivery services directly. (Ebay, Amazon, even Google all might be open to this). Though it would have to products that compliment those business’ existing retail partners and such an approach may have complications around local taxes and costs of warehousing/inventory management.

Business idea – feed of actual marketing messages

28 June, 2013 (19:54) | branding, business design, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

Discontinuation_notice_displayed_on_Google_ReaderGoogle Reader dies in a few days

I have been an avid user of Google Reader for years, at one time I had probably 500 or more RSS feeds I was subscribed to inside of Google Reader, at present i have culled this down to only 217. These include many customized feeds I created for specific purposes – monitoring Craigslist in my local area for specific items for sale for example.

But while individual posts have sometimes shown ads (depending on the relationship between the publisher and their advertisers) clearly Google Reader as a product has had an issue with how to monetize it. There are a bunch of companies creating alternatives at the moment many of which I will be testing out – however I haven’t yet settled on a perfect replacement (I like a lot of Digg Reader’s features but their iOS app isn’t working for me – it fails when trying to import my Google Reader feeds). A few feeds I subscribe to have a great model – they have a sponsored post once a week that goes into their permanent feed and is clearly shown as a sponsored post – here is this week’s sponsored post from Collaborate for Daring Fireball

Here is my big idea – what if you could get a customized for you feed of sponsored messages, that you could read how and when you want, and as you do so supported the apps and blogs you value??

The way this would work is that advertisers whether big or small, local or national, would publish a rich media post or series of posts containing the marketing message(s) that they want to share. These posts could be far richer than current banner ads, video ads or search ads. They could embed video, images or even attachments in the same way that any RSS post could (so could contain media ala a podcast or files of any form). But you wouldn’t subscribe to these raw feeds (unless you were a huge fan of a given brand – and yup, these could also be feeds to/from a group on a site like Google+ or Facebook) instead you would subscribe to a customized feed.

The advertisers would PAY to be on these feeds – paying on a per subscriber basis (potentially split into a baseline amount for being in such feeds and a further amount when selected actions are taken by users – such as reading/staring/sharing/viewing the content in a given post). This revenue stream could then be shared with the apps that incorporate it into their user experience – and could further share this revenue back to sites that provide other content to those apps (i.e. content publishers) potentially following a user-driven model ala Humble Bundle.

Sounds a bit complex and there is a lot of scaling issues to overcome – but as a user the effect would be that I could see highly targeted, rich content from advertisers that paid to reach me (but whose content I see when and how I want to see it) and which I could then interact with like I do with any other content – i.e. share it, star it to find it quickly later, email it to my wife etc. And if via doing so there is a viable business model that evolves for the apps that build services I use daily and content creators that actually create original, valuable and interesting content this would be a big win for everyone (and far better for me as a user than the current ad overloaded slideshows that masquerade as news on all to many websites – or the long form articles split into ten pages with interstitial ads that break on my mobile browsers.

Does something like this exist already?

If not, why not?

And how could we get started on building it?

TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco 2012 – initial thoughts on day one

11 September, 2012 (01:54) | branding, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

I have just returned from the first day of a packed day at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco and while I am exhausted I am also exhilarated at the quality and breadth of the startups onstage and offstage at this year’s show. I have attended nearly every TechCrunch Disrupt conference – almost every one since the first in San Francisco and many though not all of the conferences in New York City. This year’s conference is by far the biggest yet and if Day 1 is any sign it is also one of the highest quality shows done by TechCrunch yet – I saw many companies on stage today which I think will prove to be successful businesses whether or not they win the Disrupt Cup.

This is just a quick and short post highlighting of few of my observations from the day via my Tweets, I will add photos and more detailed thoughts in upcoming days as well as more details about the project I worked on this past weekend at the TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon – that project, Track Deadlines is one that I plan on continuing to work on after TechCrunch Disrupt concludes. In fact you can go and sign up to be part of my eventual beta when it is fully ready. And go read my earlier blog post (on my personal blog) about what I was planning to work on at the Hackathon.





(the last one was my most retweeted and replied to tweet of the day)



End of the month and quarter seven worthy projects to support

30 September, 2011 (15:25) | branding, games, social media | By: Shannon Clark

Today is the end of the month. Here are a few projects which are ending today that are worth supporting.

One, the first, is perhaps the most important (and don’t worry you can support this one later and it won’t be until next year that your support will be the most critical). This is, however, limited to just folks in the US (citizens in particular). Namely the reelection campaign of Barack Obama. I am an independent (registered as such in the state of CA) but I am also a very firm supporter of President Obama. Tonight is the deadline for this financial reporting period (tonight being Friday Sept 30th) and everyone who contributes will get a chance to potentially have dinner with President Obama and three others.

But don’t support him just for that chance, support him because he is and has been the most effect president in my lifetime. In the face of an obstructionist opposition party he has achieved more than most past Democratic presidents (or Republican Presidents) both domestically and internationally. He faces a tough reelection campaign due to the horrible economic climate and tough federal financial situation both due in large part to the failures of the last administration (and to some degree the administrations before as well). If you disagree with my politics I at least urge you to be deeply involved and informed this election cycle and be open to President Obama’s arguments.

Getting away from Politics there are many other great projects which end tonight as well.

One of my favorite musicians and one of the best examples of how the Internet has enabled musicians to carve out a new form of successful career is Jonathan Coulton. He has a new album, Artificial Heart, coming out and tonight is the last day to get one of the bundles he is offering. These range from $10 for just the album in digital form to $100 for three t-shirts, signed CD’s, posters and much much more. Go buy a bundle today.

I have mixed feelings about Slow Food USA but overall do support them and their mission, though I may disagree from time to time about their focus on specific projects and the underlying attitude they present to the world. I think that great, locally sourced food is something that should be celebrated by people of all socioeconomic statuses and races, Slow Food USA all to often comes across as more than a bit elitist. But that aside, tonight is the last day to participate in a promotion they are offering – donate any amount and get membership in Slow Food USA for the full year. If you love heirloom foods, local food providers and paying attention to what you eat and how you eat then Slow Food is a movement worth some support, now is a great time to show that support.

And not ending tonight but in 12 days the Humble Bundle is back this time with the Frozen Synapse bundle. If you donate more than the average amount you will get a bunch of great games for every platform, support independent game developers as well as worthy charities and hopefully have a lot of fun with the games you have bought (for a bargain price most likely). A true win-win-win-win (the fourth win being the folks behind humblebundle who I hope do well from organizing these bundles for others).

Besides my friend Mary Anne’s great erotic SF book project Demi-Monde there are many other great ongoing Kickstarter campaigns which are worth supporting before they end. In particular I’m eyeing the boardgame projects from Clever Mojo Games. They have the possibly unique distinction of having THREE successful Kickstarter campaigns so they are clearly doing something right. I’m tempted to get the Aliens invade sunrise city pack myself. Their current projects Sunrise City (ends in 20 hours as I type this) and Alien Frontiers: Factions (ends in 44 hours) are about to end and both offer some unique and compelling (if you like their type of games) offers only available if you join the 100’s (actually nearly 2000 in the case of Alien Frontiers: Factions) backing each project.

As a business designer and advisor I think that the ability of folks with a great idea to use Kickstarter to fund that idea directly from actual interested customers is an amazing innovation. In the case of boardgames this has been taken to a new level with Springboard from GameSalute which extends the Kickstarter model to also support distribution and sales to retailers.

A friend’s book and a great conference – two cool projects for today

19 September, 2011 (15:10) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

I am going to try an experiment, as often as possible over the next few weeks I am going to post links to projects and events I think are great, worth supporting and potentially of interest to readers of this blog. Some will be directly related to branding (see the Dieline conference below) but many will just a cool, worthy project. These are far from unbiased opinions, I’m making no pretense of objectivity and I’m sure there are many other worthy projects (in fact if you know of one leave a comment or send me an email with why you think I should feature that project next). I’m starting with a Kickstarter campaign for a new book by a very good and old friend of mine (NSFW entirely at least – she’s writing a book of erotic SF stories) and an upcoming conference here in SF which I wish I had the time to attend.


Demi-Monde – an erotic science-fiction novel-in stories is a Kickstarter project by my very good friend from college Mary Anne Mohanraj. Very worth supporting and I hope a successful example of how a book which a traditional publisher might not be able to publish in today’s market can be funded. Writers today have to be creative in funding their pursuits and as a reader I want Mary Anne to succeed not just to get to read a new novel by her, but as an example for many other writers whose topics of interest are not what most publishers (today) are looking to support.

I’ve been a big fan of the design blog The Dieline for a long time now. While I don’t read every post they may, I scan many of them and enjoy their highlighting of great and interesting design . This small conference here in San Francisco looks to be a fantastic event. I don’t think I’ll be able to attend personally but if you have the time it is worth considering.

What Apple could do with $70B – my alternatives to Jason Calacanis’ LAUNCH suggestions

13 September, 2011 (17:58) | branding, games, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

Earlier today Jason Calacanis sent out his latest edition of his Launch email newsletter with a bunch of alternative suggestions for what Apple should do with their $70B+ warchest. Apparently earlier this week a Wall Street analyst made the stupid suggestion that Apple should pay a dividend (which in my opinion as well as Jason’s would be a massive mistake by Apple and a negative signal to the market).

While some of Jason’s suggestions are good ones, a few are, I think, mistakes as well. Jason also misses the biggest and most valuable moves Apple could (and is) making with their warchest – namely ongoing investments into their supply chain efficiency and scale as well as the highly profitable investments they have been making in opening up additional Apple stores (which have the highest per sq. ft sales of nearly any retailer anywhere in the world).

To be specific I think Jason’s suggestion of offering a massive discount on the iPad for the educational market is a mistake (and based on a bunch of faulty ideas). Any discount beyond what Apple already offers if big enough will be gamed and used to fuel resellers (i.e. students and others buying at 60% and selling at 30% off on eBay). Apple is relatively unique amongst all consumer electronics businesses in rarely offering any sizable discounts and likewise they are unique in being amongst the most profitable of consumer electronics companies. I don’t think this is coincidental. Apple maintains strict price controls on their small set of goods for sale and in place of deep discounts offers new, better products on a regular schedule as well as bundles of goods for the educational market (notably this year they offered $100 iTunes credit in place of their more traditional offer of a free iPod to students). Apple has massive volume without massive discounts – and they already do have millions of tablet users (if not quite yet 100M they are selling iPads nearly as fast as they can make them) and they do have well over 100M iOS devices (a lot more).

I also don’t fully agree that Apple should pay 100% out to developers. Apple’s 30% does more than just pay Apple. It covers credit card payment fees, it pays (small) affiliate fees and it means that the App store (and iTunes) are viable, more than self-sustaining businesses. This rigor is good for Apple. It also helps curb, a bit, the general downward pressure on prices (since most businesses are bad at setting prices Apple’s floor of $0.99 for apps which aren’t free is a good thing). I think that the Mac App store as well as the iPad have started to slowly shift sales off of the $0.99 price point to higher prices which is better for developers. In-App purchases also have been very successful for many developers. Apple could, perhaps, waive fees on certain CLASSES of sales – for example perhaps paying out a higher percentage on in-app purchases of CONTENT (magazine subscriptions, music, videos) while retaining the 30% on the sale of apps and app functionality. Sure the line between content and app can be blurry but I think this could help grow the app market even further (and let Amazon as well as many music companies turn back on sales of content inside of apps). Apple could also waive or eliminate any requirement to clear content sales (with a process to ensure that if an app claims to be for all ages it doesn’t offer adult content – if it does the app could face a penalty)

Apple is about to “pull a gmail” with the pending launch of iCloud, though the actual figures for size are a bit more complicated than Jason’s proposed 50GB. Apple will be offering 5GB for free with additional space available. However since Apple has stated that music and photos don’t count (if you sync them to the cloud) it is a bit hard to compare directly to Dropbox etc. See The Next Web’s coverage in August for some more details on the pricing.

I like Jason’s suggestion for buying Boingo Wireless and for investing widely in a nationwide (and ideally global) network of free (for Apple devices at a minimum) hotspots. This make sense though Apple would likely need to invest more than Jason estimates to buy wireless hotspots Internationally. Also there is a valid argument for paid hotspots in meeting the business needs of the venues where those hotspots are located – but perhaps Apple could find creative alternatives to compensate venues and minimize freeloading (or overloading of a hotspot from neighbors). This is less of a concern in locations such as airports where most people are passing through, but it is an issue in urban venues where people may live upstairs or next door. It is also a case that wifi hotspots get used for less-than-legal purposes or just for uses that tie up significant bandwidth – such as large downloads. Apple, however, does have a business need to promote high bandwidth use cases (such as downloading large OS updates, downloading purchased apps and movies, streaming content from iCloud etc) so Apple might have a business reason to upgrade the wifi networks. If Apple does this purchase they might also face carrier pushback (though since Boingo likely purchases bandwidth from some of those carriers this may be muted).

While I see the argument for Apple investing $10B in building their own search engine to compete with Google (Jason suggests offering this without ads – I don’t see why that would be so compelling however as ads against search is now a clear and interesting business). But that isn’t, actually, hitting Google where they are strongest.

What Apple SHOULD do if they really want to all out compete with Google is invest $10B (or more) in building out their iADs platform into a valid competitor for Doubleclick. This would be hard but the profits in building up a valuable ad serving business on a massive Internet (and mobile Internet) wide scale could be immense. This would require likely some highly creative purchases as well as deep investments into core technology and into a massive salesforce and agency outreach. Apple might start by looking to buy parts of Yahoo and AOL (but likely not all of both companies) though there is an equally strong argument that the industry needs new approaches not the same old approaches.

My personal suggestion beyond the billions in supply chain investments which Apple is already making – buying up capacity and funding the building of new plants and manufacturing capacity for the components that go into Apple’s devices would be to look at the following additional investment options.

  1. Consider, if Chinese law permits it, the full purchase of Foxconn. Yes this would mean adding 1M+ employees to Apple’s books and yes this would mean that Apple would “own” the working conditions. But it would further ensure that Apple fully owns their supply chain and manufacturing process in a manner that few other companies do at the moment. This might, however, have downsides. Not least of which is that it could limit their ability to use new suppliers in the future and it could have major legal hurdles (as Chinese law may not permit the foreign ownership of big Chinese firms). Baring this Apple should continue to invest in improvements in the working conditions of their manufacturing processes and look at ways to diversify their manufacturing into other countries than just China (to minimize future supply chain disruption risks). If any company in the world could figure out how to profitably manufacture in the US (or other “Western” countries once again it is likely Apple).
  2. Many pundits have suggested that the next logical move for Apple is to offer an Apple TV. I don’t think this is bold enough. I think Apple should look at investments in a home gaming console – one that builds on the Apple TV (and iOS) but which is a full fledged competitor to the XBox, Playstation and Wii (including the next generations of each of those consoles when they come out). One possible approach which would be “different” would be for Apple to buy OnLive which would likely cost $2B or more especially if they also purchased the related Reardon Companies whose Shannon’s Law breaking wireless technology if it works and can be deployed could go far beyond Onlive (or Boingo) in applications and value to Apple. Onlive isn’t riskless in the least but if Apple purchased them and made a massive investment in growing them as well as in adding Apple TV capabilities to the Onlive box (and leveraging Onlive’s successes in being integrated into other devices) it could be a really really big shift in the gaming landscape. And if, as has been rumored, OnLive becomes more than just a PC (as in Windows) gaming platform this shift could be even larger. The potential in the Onlive model exists for games that run on hardware that dwarfs that of any modern (or even future) console system – while displaying on today’s laptops and TV’s.
  3. Apple should invest in “getting” Social. For all that Apple is design focused the one area of modern design they haven’t cracked is Social. The deep Twitter integration into the Apple platform that is coming is a good starting point but it shouldn’t be the end game. Apple should invest in ways to leverage their massive brand value as well as deep consumer relationships and touchpoints into a real, engaged and valuable social experience. Already iTunes (and the credit cards and credits in iTunes) represents a massive network of users – albeit one that hasn’t been socially engaged – yet. Ping doesn’t count. Apple could and I think should make some bold moves to get Social. They could buy some social assets on the cheap (MySpace for example) and work on migrating those social experiences to better run and better designed Apple experiences. However a counter argument could be made that Apple’s lack of “Social” has left room for massive innovation by iOS developers leveraging Apple platforms as well as the web in building new social experiences and that any move by Apple might disturb this valuable ecosystem.
  4. Apple should invest in the Enterprise. Apple’s Enterprise story is far larger than most pundits understand – the iOS and iPad platform is seeing massive corporate deployments all the time and I suspect IT departments everywhere are seeing greater demand for Apple devices as alternatives to PC platforms (and as the price competitiveness and performance of Apple devices keep growing the IT arguments against Apple computers in the Enterprise diminish rapidly). The shift of many corporate software platforms from internal networks to SAAS (software-as-a-service) also minimizes the need for a uniform enterprise platform. That said, Apple’s Enterprise story could be far larger – they could offer more from their server offerings and they could invest in SAAS offerings themselves (Salesforce however might not be a great fit though it might be worth exploring).
I think as Apple continues to grow they will also, soon, be competing with some companies few pundits expect them to be competing with. Game companies for example (though the iOS devices already are seen as winning against dedicated portable game consoles) but also more Enterprise and niche companies such as Salesforce, Cisco and others. I could see Apple, perhaps via an investment in/purchase of a company such as Boingo and/or Rearden Companies suddenly being a competitor of many networking companies. Apple might also purchase additional chip companies to further control the supply chain for their devices – a company that makes radios and other networking chips for devices from the iPhone to the iPad to the Macbook Air might be a very logical (and relatively small) purchase for Apple to make in the near future. If Apple also purchases an IP shop such as Reardon Companies they might further compete via offering better devices for a better price than a company such as Cisco can offer today.
These are my suggestions – what are yours?

Brand conversations on Social Networks – a response to Douglas Rushkoff

31 January, 2011 (16:56) | branding | By: Shannon Clark

Earlier today Read Write Web posted a discussion of a talk Douglas Rushkoff gave at the Pivot conference. In this discussion of Rushkoff’s talk the following claims were made:

Rushkoff thinks branding is irrelevant in the age of the social network. He compares social networks to the original bazaars and marketplaces of the past. The bazaar was the center of commerce, gossip, political debate and more. He says that people weren’t interested in “branding” then – they were interested in exchanging factual (or supposedly factual) information.

I wrote a lengthy comment in reply to the post:

I will write a longer reply on my blog (which is in part all about Branding – see but I think Rushkoff is completely wrong.

Brands matter now more than ever before – in no small part because more companies and products are competing for attention & sales than at any time ever before in history. No longer are (most) consumers in the global marketplace limited to just a small handful of choices and options – across almost all categories (other than some which are geographic services and in most cases protected by some form of legalized monopoly or oligarchy – i.e. Internet access in the US, phone service, power etc)

It is also well worth remembering that most “brands” compete with each other even across what is often thought about as “different” categories – i.e. the movies you choose to spend money seeing compete with the games you choose to play, the types of food you buy especially meals out and all the other discretionary ways you have to spend your money and your time.

In this environment strong brands have a great deal of value – they cut through a lot of clutter, they offer clean and simple and (hopefully) authoritative ways for a discussion about a product or service to occur.

Rushkoff is also wrong in that the “Keebler Elves” are NOT the brand. They are an advertising campaign – the BRAND is Keebler (or even more specifically Keebler’s products). Pepperidge Farms has a great ad that illustrates this which is currently running on many food related cable channels – in the ad they highlight the ingredients that go into a number of their different products and then promote each of those product brands (Milano cookies for example) all under the larger rubric of the brand of Pepperidge Farms.

Without brands (and Rushkoff is his own brand) it is very hard to have a conversation about a product.

Consider the dilemma most current laptop makers and most car companies face at the moment – they have “brands” which are so cluttered and overburdened it is nearly impossible for one ThinkPad user to talk about their laptop in a way that would allow another person to buy the same product. Can you explain to me the differences between the Letter & Number combo brands for most european car companies? (BMW, Mercedes Benz and Audi in particular are egregious here). Even if you want to if can be hard to recall which letter & number combo describes the car(s) which are appropriate for a particular person in a particular stage of life & family.

In contrast strong modern brands carve out a very clearly defined message and identity. .Apple is a master of this (though they failed slightly with the iPhone 3 vs iPhone 3g) but generally Apple restricts their product lineup and defines each product (including their OS versions) with a clear brand identity and name. Mini Cooper in the car world is also quite focused even as they have been expanding their car lineup. Ford has been doing a better job than many in defining and creating new brands for their modernized lineup of cars (though they do face an uphill battle with some of their brands that have legacy implications such as Focus)

In short (okay in some length) I think that Brands are more valuable now than almost ever before – a clear, well defined brand is in many ways the price of entry to being able to be the topic of conversation between people – if you do not have a brand people can refer to when talking about your product or service then mostly those conversations won’t happen – and if they do happen you (as in the company) will almost never be able to listen or react or contribute.

Smart companies whether large or brand new know this and use clear and unique brands to form a starting point around which social engagement can occur and along with that actual sales.

This is in large part what I started this blog years ago to discuss and highlight – that Brands are if anything more important in the 21st century than at any time in the past. In a global, hyper competitive marketplace where almost every company competes with nearly every other company, Brands are a key element to business (and personal) success. A slow, smart Brand is one that builds value over time, one that allows for conversations around the product(s) or services and which offers a clear and compelling vision and identity.

Whether that brand is a personal brand or the brand of one of the largest companies in the world it is vital and valuable.

Personally I face this every day as I try to offer a clear vision and identity around what I do and what I offer to clients, partners and in the case of startups I found investors (and of course to customers). But this is not easy and it is very challenging – without a clear identity, without a strong brand, it is very difficult for others to refer to me, to talk about me, to think of me when they have a business need or meet someone who might use my services.

So I would argue that Rushkoff has it completely wrong – Brands and branding is more vital now in the era of social networks than every before – without a brand conversations about your goods and services cannot happen.

Alternative suggestions for the “power of print” campaign

1 March, 2010 (13:06) | branding, social media, technology | By: Shannon Clark

According to PaidContent a group of five leading print publishers have banded together on a $90M+ campaign called the “power of print” launching with ads in their various publications. PaidContent cites an article by the Wall Street Journal today on the launch of the campaign, an article which is behind the WSJ subscriber-only paywall but in the preview  the first few paragraphs mention that the campaign will include over 1400 print ads scattered across the publications of the five publishers.

This is not how to save print media nor is it the best use of $90 million

Instead the publishers should be rethinking their print publications and using that $90M towards the following.

  • Hiring better writers with more diverse views. I’m a longtime New Yorker subscriber and in the past year I have seen a significant decline in the quality of the writing. Furthermore the lack of diversity of perspectives, especially in the reviews they publish has become really glaring. Even though I have been a subscriber for 20+ years I am thinking about not renewing my subscription when it expires, especially if the current decline in quality continues.
  • Investing in cultivating new advertisers and in adding greater value to current advertisers. For over a decade I have been suggesting that print publications – from monthly magazines to daily newspapers – should have long ago extended their print advertising relationships to the web. Perhaps in the 1990’s and even early in this century many advertisers in print publications did not have related web presences but today it is a rare ad which does not feature a web URL and an even rarer advertiser who does not have a web presence. But even without making every ad a link to the relevant advertiser, print publications have missed out on many great opportunities by not extending ads into the web. Many print publications are bought for the ads as well as the content – in a few cases almost entirely for the ads (see many fashion magazines).
  • Do not retain content sections just because they are traditional. All parts of every publication should be rethought and be up for revision in the light of the changes brought by the web. The New Yorker, for example, should consider editing down the front events pages and remaking them into a highly curated selection of just events, restaurants, art shows and movies which the editors recommend to their readers. Perhaps make the comprehensive listings available as an online extended service (and do not hide this behind a pay wall) but focus the print edition on just what will be lasting, what matters, what are truly don’t miss.
  • Invest in editors. Invest in writers. Invest in photographers. Online there are a seeming infinite number of writers and other content creators, print publications should invest in and cultivate great writing. Don’t publish filler content or throwaway articles, invest instead in great editing that makes content tighter. Invest in great photography that tells a story and captures a look or a moment.
  • Frame the content of the magazine in great design but do not over do it. Wired magazine has, at times, had great articles but the ever present “design” of the magazine often hides the value of the content and makes it harder to read. Furthermore by having a different design for many articles the overall costs go up for little added value to the reader – in fact by having to figure out how to read each article anew the value to most readers goes down.

Most importantly, however, advertising the “power of print” via only ads in other print publications is preaching to a currently shrinking population. Instead the publishers should be looking to ways to engage with the rest of the media landscape – increasingly that means digital – find a value-adding role for each print publication within that ecosystem.

And do not confuse the form with the mission of the publication.

Great publications have a mission which can and should extend well beyond a single physical form. The physical editions however frequent should be a reminder of that mission and serve to further it, but shouldn’t be the only part. The editors and writers and other creative parts of the publication alongside the advertising and commercial relationships should all act together towards a common goal. For a magazine such as Vogue it might be a celebration of fashion, for the New Yorker it might be a celebration of the diversity of New York City (and the inhabitants of that city – culture, politics, business, fashion and more).

Print publications today have many audiences – subscribers, newsstand buyers, readers of shared copies found in doctor’s waiting rooms. But they also are part of some community – whether fashion or a city or an industry. But very rapidly those communities around the globe are finding new means of communicating and magazines which are stuck in the past will and are being left behind.

Why 2010 is a great year for print

30 December, 2009 (19:02) | branding, social media | By: Shannon Clark


2010 is a great year for print.

I have been thinking about print in the age of the web for a long time, earlier this year I thought about (and still may) starting a print publication of my own, tbnl magazine, but three items from the past week really struck me as to why I think 2010 could, contrary to most opinions, be a great year for print.

Item 1: McSweeney’s Panorama.

Item 2: a gift subscription to the amazing cookbook series from The Canal House

Item 3: podcasts from the best new magazine of the decade, Monocle.

Item 4 (bonus): a whole bunch of innovative print examples especially from the comics industry but also from other places  in the past few months – DC Comic’s Wednesday Comics series in broadsheet newsprint among others as is Andrew Sullivan’s recent self-published book of photos from his reader’s windows.

Item 1: McSweeney’s Panorama

Panorama is a huge experiment in what can still be done in the broadsheet, newspaper format. All told it is 320 pages of newsprint (w/two magazine inserts) as well bonus posters and other materials. Approximately 350,000 words, 218 contributors, 10 sections, 120 broadsheet pages, 22 comics, 3 posters went into the publication.

In a very fascinating insert to the publication, McSweeney’s details the overall costs for Panorama. They had a print run of 20,000 copies at a per unit printing cost of $5.57. With just one part-time ad sales person (first time McSweeney’s has taken ads) they sold $61,000 worth of advertising from a combination of local & national advertisers. Their unit costs factoring in editorial & art expenses as well as printing costs were $7.98/unit.

Their payments to contributors was about $40,000.

All told they published Panorama with a total direct capital of about $235,000, most of which they expected to recoup on the first day of selling Panorama (~1500 copies sold at $5/copy, 18,500+ at ~$16/copy)  when they expect to net about $300,000. Along with the $61,000 in ad sales that means a rough expectation of around $170,000 in profits. This is likely a bit high as the few 1000 copies sold in retailers would have some margin for those retailers.

I have not yet finished my copy of Panorama – indeed so far I have just skimmed it, read a few articles and took in the overall design and layout. There are many sections I think are exceptional and many which I think fall a bit short – the magazine background of many of the contributors shows with many pages and sections reading more like an enlarged magazine than a newspaper (specifically they rarely if ever have multiple stories on the same page – a design model common in newspapers but uncommon in magazines)

That said the overall process which McSweeney’s demonstrated with Panorama shows that there are still the mechanical and structural elements capable of publishing an amazing example of newsprint publication (as well as supplemental magazines) including much of the distribution all at costs which could be manageable for a small team to publish on a regular basis – likely with a higher print run than 20,000 copies, fewer pages, fewer special inserts and thus a far lower per unit printing costs (and also editorial costs).

In short McSweeney’s is demonstrating that there could be a future for newsprint if groups of creative people come together to explore it. A future which would probably be far more niche than today’s dailies but less niche than small local neighborhood weekly papers. The Onion is, perhaps, an example of what this future could look like – a niche paper with a mix of national and very local content and so strong of an advertising base that they give the paper away for free.

Item 2: The Canal House cookbook

My sister and brother-in-law (well technically they aren’t married but have been living together for a very long time and just days ago had my niece) gave me a subscription to The Canal House cookbook as a holiday present this year. Eventually the website may be a great resource for foodies, but for the moment the focus is the self-published cookbooks with plans for 3 cookbooks a year.

The books are $19.95 each or you can buy (or gift) a subscription for three issues for $49.95.

The physical design of the books is beautiful, one of the two woman behind The Canal House is a world renowned food photographer and co-founder of Saveur Magazine. Prior to The Canal House her photography had been a part of many other successful cookbooks.

They could have probably sold a traditional cookbook to a traditional publisher. Instead they have decided to self-publish.

So why do I think The Canal House illustrates the future of print?

To start, consider the economics. Every 1000 subscribers they sign up for the three book series represents $50,000 in revenue.

What about the costs?

They print each cookbook in China, so are likely not using a print on demand service, thus they do have to balance inventory and print runs, but here are some rough estimates:

– per book printing costs: $5-7/book ? (I suspect this may actually be on the high side though their book is full color)

– shipping costs $5-10/subscription (my subscription included the first two books shipped in one package for a cost of $3.16 + the shipping envelope)

Say that the total (rough) costs for a three-book subscription are $30 for printing, shipping & packaging. That means $20/subscription profit or $20,000 per 1000 subscribers.

Very few authors get advances which are more than $100,000, in fact very few get advances which are more than $50,000. The Canal House has two co-founders so any advance would have to have been split between them.

Doing it all by themselves if they sell 10,000 subscriptions they will, roughly, net $200,000 in profit or $100,000 per co-founder.

If they sell more than 10,000 (or if my cost estimates are high) they will make far more.

And very likely, given how great the first two cookbooks are, they will see many subscribers renewing for future subscriptions. So instead of negotiating a new book deal each year (very few publishers would have expected to get three books from a set of authors in a given year) they are building a business which will be sustainable for years to come.

I think there are likely dozens (perhaps 100’s) of other food authors as well as active food blogs/communities who could adopt a similar, print driven revenue model. Take the best articles, the best recipes from a given period of time and print them along side of tested recipes and beautiful photography and sell them. Ideally mostly via a subscription model which allows you to very closely estimate the print numbers you need in advance of actual printing (allowing you to negotiate with the printer and take advantage of volume discounts, per unit printing costs go down very quickly with volume).

My sister’s boyfriend, Peter Meehan recently published a major cookbook (Momofuku w/David Chang). They went the more traditional route with a major publisher, a large advance and a well supported and well attended press tour. Their hard work has been rewarded with a cookbook that cracked the top 100 on Amazon (as high as #32) and which will likely sell out the initial print run of at least 50,000 books (for a $40 book – yes that’s $2M at full retail pricing).

However they are by far the exception – a cookbook by a non-TV chef rarely sees numbers anything like what they are seeing.

Most cookbook authors, like the vast majority of authors of any genre, make fairly little from their writing.

Thus in 2010 I would suggest that any food writer thinking about making a cookbook consider strongly the DIY route enhanced by leveraging the web & social media to generate pre-sales (and/or adopt a subscription model such as The Canal House has) and use that to lower production costs while retaining far more revenue than traditionally received under a usual publisher’s contract.

Of course to do this well requires that you have access to great photographers, editors, writer and recipe editors/testers. Many websites, such as the fantastic Serious Eats would seem well positioned to do just that.

Item 3: The Monocle

I have been a huge fan of The Monocle since I discovered it a bit over a year ago. In a year which has seen many magazines close and print publications around the globe scale back their ambitions and international coverage, Monocle consistently creates a compelling if also hard to summarize global mix of coverage with original reporting from across the globe. The mix of a strong focus on design, combined with global coverage of the world including interviews with world leaders, extensive photojournalism and stories which cover the globe in depth and with richness and depth makes Monocle a long, but very compelling read.

It is also a great argument for the power and value of great design and the print format to tell a compelling story all while also demonstrating a very 21st century business model.

The components of the Monocle business model which, I think, are worth noting as components of the future of print in 2010 and beyond are:

  1. A high value (and equally high priced) monthly print magazine. Monocle has a $12 list price in the US and subscriptions in the US are actually a bit more costly (75 pounds sterling) than buying the magazine at retail – depending on the variations of exchange rates
  2. By focusing on a global audience but with a definite luxury and high design focus Monocle attracts global, luxury advertisers whose advertising budgets are less impacted by economic shifts. Additionally these advertisers seek specific audiences over mass reach.
  3. Monocle has a retail component – with actual retail stores in London and LA as well as an international online store. In the store they sell design collaborations with select companies from across the globe as well as limited edition books and prints. These range from postcards to dining room tables to travel bags. Over the summer they had a pop-up store along the Mediterranean coast as well.
  4. A growing range of audio and video podcasts. Supplementing and enhancing the magazine the Monocle’s online audio and video content is of an exceptionally high quality. Their video series are often sponsored by premier sponsors via tasteful (and short) embedded ads while the regular audio series serve primarily to be an audio discussion of the content of the current and future magazine issues.
  5. Regular special reports and inserts into most of the issues of the print magazine. These special reports on Travel, Aviation and many other topics are both great original content and highly targeted publications which attract specific advertisers who might otherwise not advertise in the regular issues of Monocle.

Monocle may not be an easily duplicated model. It is certainly a high cost, high value publication with editors and reporters across the globe and very likely a very high travel and expenses budget along with very high production value. But at a time when many magazines claim hardship and are closing Monocle stands as a reminder that it is still very possible to build a great (and by all appearances successful) magazine even in the 21st century.

Item 4: Examples of innovative print experiments

Though I have always been a geek and was aware of trends in comics growing up it wasn’t until earlier this year that I started to semi-seriously collect comics. What drew me to comics in 2009 was a combination of new media (podcasts/video podcasts such as iFanboy and Major Spoilers) and an interest in looking at how the comics industry has been responding to the challenges of the 21st century.

What I have found in 2009 in looking at the comics industry is a range of lessons which offer, I think, much to be hopeful about the future of Print in the 21st century and especially in 2010. Yes there are fewer big hit comics (though more than you might expect – with some breakout graphic novels especially manga titles making bestseller lists this year as well as many smaller titles selling out and getting reprinted multiple times).

But beyond questions of volume of sales what I am most encouraged by in observing the comics industry is the range of innovations I see there – with companies large and small exploring different mediums, form factors and many different publishing schedules and business models. The physical products come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, at a range of periods (from “one-shots” to bi-weeklies to monthlies to bi-monthlies, quarterlies etc). In addition to the comics sold in any comics store the industry also has branches selling – very successfully – comics in large bookstores (graphic novels and especially manga) as well as at school book sales around the country (Scholastic sells millions of comics books in such book sales every year – the colored editions of Boned for example sell exceptionally well).

And while there are exceptions, for the most part the comics industry creates physical print products which explore the limits of print. This summer, in a prequel of sorts to what McSweeney’s has done with Panorama, DC published a 12 issue weekly series, Wednesday Comics. Each issue was printed on large format newsprint and told 15 different serialized stories each told one large format page per week. Overall it was a celebration of the history of comics – a return to a classic format which predates the comicbook as we know it today.

A few years ago there was a book published which reprinted the Little Nemo comics from the early part of the 20th century in their original, large broadsheet format. Earlier this year the second volume of those Little Nemo reprints was published, Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splendid Sundays, Volume 2 which is also gorgeous.

As 2009 ends there are many other examples of innovation in print happening. One in particular which I have enjoyed observing the process around is a photo book which blogger Andrew Sullivan published this year featuring a collection of photos from his reader’s windows. To launch the book he put out a call to his readers to pre-commit to ordering the book, in turn this allowed him to place an initial print order of 3000 books sold to those who had pre-committed at the lower price allowed by printing so many copies at once. That print run having sold out, the current books are available as print-on-demand from Blurb for a higher per book price.

A last example of where innovation is happening in print – is in the art print business – 20×200 is an innovative gallery in NYC and website which makes art prints available at prices starting at $20 (200 small format prints of each work are typically made available at a $20 price point). When 20×200 launched they would typically have 200 prints of a work at $20 and 2 prints of the work at $2000. In the past year they have expanded the range of price points and print sizes and now for a given work they may have as many as 4 or 5 print sizes, always in limited quantities. Some works could net over $75,000 or more if all of the prints sell out – as they frequently do.

What makes 20×200 work as with many of the examples I have listed is the curation behind each of these projects. As I noted in 2008 and still believe today the future of media is curation.


Building your brand by telling stories

31 August, 2009 (17:20) | branding, food, social media | By: Shannon Clark

cc licensed photo by Richard Soderberg

cc-licensed photo by Robert Soderberg
photo by Ewan Spence

photo by Ewan Spence

I am spending the afternoon at my friend Ross Dawson’s Future of Influence Summit here in San Francisco (it is also running simultanously in Sydney Australia) I will have much more to write about this topic in future posts, but as I walked here this morning I was thinking a great deal about how brands are built today.

Telling great stories is the best way to build great brands

Here in San Franciso in the past year the local food scene has seen dozens of innovative, small scale food related businesses being created. Many of them are broadly speaking food carts, others are chefs who only cook a few nights a week, or other new forms of food and craft driven businesses. At the same time dozens of more traditional food businesses have opened in San Francisco. However I have observed that there are some common traits to the new businesses which are emerging with strong brands compared to those which have only a minimal if any brand recognition.

A great example here in San Francisco, though far from the only one,  is 4505 Meats, which is a local food business started by aclaimed chef Ryan Farr. He is building a fantastic business making a range of locally sourced meat products – Pork Chicarronnes which are available for sale in cafes and specilized markets throughout San Francisco and he is growing in acclaim for his handmade sausages, hot dogs and when he makes them hamburgers. He sells these products directly at the Thursday Ferry Bulding Farmers Market as well as select food festivals around town, but he is also increasingly a supplier of choice for many other small scale, innovative local food businesses.

In the process he is building a great, local brand, one which I suspect will only continue to grow in value in the years to come.

And his blog as well as the design choices he makes, including selling limited edition lithograph prints, all tell his story – that of food products made from very carefully sourced local providers made with care, old faashioned skill and a great sense of taste and quality control. He charges fair prices boh directly to customers at the markets and clearly to the many local businesses who are gladly doing business with him. As a result his business is growing and his brand is growing as well.

Take a look at how he is using twitter – follow him at @chicharrones – he’s using it to promote his events & specials exceptionally well.

And here in the Bay Area he is far from unique, there are some dozen or more similar, small scale, innovative food related businesses who are using Twitter as in many cases their primary form of marketing and advertising to promote their appearances, daily specials and over time to build up their brands – often in no small part by helping to promote each other’s businesses.

A few notable examples – but look at any of their Tweet streams for more are:

@adobohobo – a local food cart that makes Adobo Chicken (and occasionally other dishes), tasty, fairly priced street food.

@eatrealfest – a local, first time Street Food Festival which drew over 60,000 people to Oakland for three days of street food and farmers markets. They promoted the event throughout the Bay Area via posters and postcards but also benefited extensively from the social media usage (especially Twitter) of so many of the businesses who were selling at the festival, many of whom sold 1000’s of dishes in a single day.

@cremebrulecart – a local chef who makes a range of flavors of creme brule which he sells in parks and at events throughout the Bay Area, I’ve yet to see him fail to completely sell out at an appearance, his product is very tasty and fairly priced and not surprisingly quite popular. In addition to using his growing Twitter followers to announce where he will be, he is also using Twitter to get people to come out to help keep a favorite local park clean through volunteer efforts.

@missionstfood – a local Bay Area business which started as a food cart, then moved to their current format where they take over a local Chinese restuarant in the Mission area of San Francisco on Thursday and Saturday evenings. Each evening a different guest chef creates the menu, much of the proceeds of the evening go to a different charity (chosen by that evening’s guest chef). They use Twitter to promote the menu and over the course of the evening to inform people about what they have sold out of at the moment. They draw over 200 people most evenings, many of whom gladly wait over 1 1/2 hours for a table and they almost never have an empty chair from the moment they open until just before they close for the evening (usually having sold every dish they were ready to make). Just a few weeks ago they expanded further to now have a regular daily business, Mission Burger, selling beef & vegetarian hamburgers and occasional specials from within a local Mission market.

All of these small businesses along with dozens of others are using emerging media, such as twitter, as a core part of how they tell the story of their brand, in many ways using these tools to help them build and define a brand as it emerges in partnership with customers. While many of the businesses I have linked to have active online blogs and websites and many are increasingly attracting the attention of the media both online and offline, they are also using tools such as twitter to help them tell their own stories.