• Wisconsin's (Temporary) Butter Ban

    Although free trade doesn't always deliver fair results to both sides of the exchange, as a general economic rule it is usually preferable to having a bunch of restrictions on commerce. And many protections are often employed by governments to insulate favored local businesses from the ravages of competitive forces that don't always have to play by the same rules. This complain is sometimes a very valid one. But this sort of economic engineering almost always has unintended consequences, and when they involve angering large numbers of citizens, perhaps some of these types of decisions need to be reconsidered.

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    Officials in the great state of Wisconsin, home of legendary cheese and equally legendary Green Bay Packer fans, have banned one of Wisconsin's most beloved products, Kerrygold butter. Its crime? It's not from here, but from Ireland, a place that takes its butter rather seriously. In fact, Ireland is now Europe's leading exporter of butter, recently surpassing France. And shoppers in the Badger State have been enjoying the premium, free-ranging, grass-fed bovine by-product imported directly from the Emerald Isle for many years now, and of course it remains legal in 49 other states. So why all the blatant discrimination?

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    Chalk it up to good old-fashioned protectionism. Consumer preference for the imported butter clearly hurts a state economy dependent on the cattle industry and its by-products. And so the state has begun enforcing a 1970 law that requires all butter sold in the state to undergo an extensive evaluation by a state panel, which apparently the company is currently undergoing. This is the same law that was used to ban margarine back in the day, another competitive threat to domestic butter producers. In a prevailing age of globalized trade, these sorts of seemingly-arbitrary regulations have largely fallen out of favor, but a new wave of protectionism threatens this "free trade" orientation, especially in situations where the trade does not necessarily benefit both sides equally (i.e.e, the U.S. and China and Mexico). Large trade deficits between nations are usually an indicator that something is amiss, but when it comes to states within a country protecting their industries, things can be a bit more complex. In any case, Kerrygold doesn't seem to be doing anything wrong, and the stuff is rather pricey, so it's not like the Irish company is undercutting local producers.

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    In the meantime, across-border runs by better-butter buyers to stores in adjacent states are not uncommon. All of this nonsense is temporary, however, as it is certain that Kerrygold will eventually be able to comply with Wisconsin regulators, but one must ask whether all of this is really necessary. The whole thing is certainly costly to the company and it's ticking off consumers. In addition, the sudden desire to enforce a regulation that wasn't being previously enforced seems to be a bit suspicious. What exactly is the point of this whole thing? Was a ban necessary? Is the product somehow unsafe? Perhaps Wisconsin should embrace a more competitive attitude, and maybe butter makers in the state can learn from whatever it is that makes Kerrygold so great. They say the ultimate form of flattery is an outright product ban (actually no one really says that), but this is all only a temporary delay tactic until Kerrygold comes into compliance (whatever that means). In the meantime, desperate consumers in border areas can continue to smuggle the butter from grocery stores in neighbor states and resell the product in the seedy alleys of Madison. And Wisconsin isn't making very many friends in Ireland. What is the point?

  • Aviation's Disingenuous Duopoly

    We don't hear much about it, and maybe that's because buying airplanes is largely a business-to-business process of exchange, and so it's more out of the public eye. But many of us do pay to be transported by these rather useful contraptions and because of that fact, what the airlines end of paying for new airplanes likely trickles on down to the consumer. And as any student of business knows, when there are only one or two competitors in an industry, there will be bumpy skies indeed.

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    That is why it should be no great surprise that the aviation industry, served almost exclusively by Boeing and Airbus, is facing an unprecedented backlog of airplane orders that they, possibly to due the utter lack of real competition in the segment, are in no real hurry to fill. That is as long as both companies take their time. Perhaps this is a bit cynical even for this writer, but the fact of the matter is that poor sales forecasting and side effects from complicated supply chains have resulted in a massive 30% surplus of demand over supply. And that can't be good for prices.

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    Not only will airlines be forced to maintain planes that would otherwise have been retired (anyone else worried about this?), but there is little doubt that costs are also creeping up and there is less incentive for innovation due to this lack of competitive pressure. Yet, in an age pf relatively low fuel prices, airlines might not be a sensitive to these price increases for new airplanes, and because there is so little competition in the industry, airlines will have little choice but to absorb the costs and pass some, if not all, of it on to the consumer. Yikes!

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    Why do governments continue to tolerate a duopoly in an industry that is so important to modern global commerce? Why are there only two airplane makers left in the first place? Is this partly because it's easier for the industry to train pilots on only two manufacturer's systems? If so, then what's to stop regulators from encouraging more standardization to allow for more competition? Why can't Elon Musk leave making small batches of unprofitable electric cars to the real auto makers, drop the spaceship and Mars colonization mumbo jumbo, and build us some really cool airliners? Huh? Maybe Apple can use its countless billions in cash to build planes instead of making what are turning out to be pretty nerdy-looking watches and bi-annual iterations of what are turning out to be the same iPhones. Instead they want to make us some more cars even though younger Americans aren't really buying very many.

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    Whew. I feel much better now. All kidding aside, the point remains that this is an industry that needs more competition and the current under-supply situation is simply one more example of why this is true. What will it take for some deep-pocketed opportunity-seekers to get in the game? Government incentives? A forced breakup of the companies? There does seem to be some opportunity here. Why won't anyone seize it?

  • Testing at 5 G's

    Mobile broadband is about to get faster. If that statement sounds like a good opening for a Verizon commercial to you, then you likely watch too much television. the generis intro notwithstanding, high-end provider Verizon Communications will test a faster, fifth-generation mobile broadband technology in 11 markets during the first half of 2017. And let's hope that when it is time to let the ad agency work its "Madison Avenue" magic, the creative staff can do better than I just did.

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    Although the service won't be available on a national scale until 2020, Verizon needs to reinforce its premium status and not only be one of the first to offer faster speed, but also the best at doing so. And running market tests for both homes and businesses in cities such as Denver, Ann Arbor, Sacramento, Dallas, Houston, Seattle, Miami, and Washington D.C., should help marketers gather data useful in improving the product before widespread commercialization. This is something that large organizations working on new technologies have the luxury of doing. It takes time and money. But rival AT&T is also planning on rolling out a faster product, and so soon consumers can bask in the fruits of telecom's relatively competitive marketing environment. Let's hope the other major providers in the industry are able to get into the act so that the resulting competition can encourage telecom marketers to offer better products at lower prices. But at present, for Verizon and for a bunch of folks in 11 U.S. cities, it's a test. It's only a test.

  • A's Double Down on Oakland

    The Golden State Warriors, the Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant-led darlings of the NBA, will move across the bay to San Francisco next year. That's a done deal. And the NFL's Raiders, like a bunch of bikers, are never content with staying anywhere, and as such have expressed a desire to move to Las Vegas, although San Diego is also a distant possibility. Either way the team is likely to move elsewhere if a 3/4 majority of NFL owners vote "yes". Gosh. One would think that Oakland isn't a desirable place to be.

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    Five years ago, one would have been quite right, and it is still very rough around the edges. I myself have almost been killed there (twice). But the sheer economic impossibility of living in San Francisco has recently caused a mass migration of professionals (and their wealth) across the bridge, causing housing prices to nearly double. In short, Oakland is rapidly becoming hip. And so the MLB's A's, often a forgotten middle child to California's Giants and Dodgers who seem to get all the attention, have instead of seeking relocation decided to double down on Oakland. The A's are Oakland's team!

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    At least that's what the latest marketing slogan, "Rooted in Oakland" claims, and the advertising campaign features players in various shots around the city, a tactic becoming more commonplace among sport properties. The problem of having to play in a crumbling facility, apparently a deal-breaker for Raiders ownership, still must be overcome. Perhaps a remodel can be accomplished, funded through a combination of public and private monies. Some of Oakland's newfound wealth can be used to anchor the project, and the citizens of Oakland can look to the A's a torchbearers of civic pride. Or the team could move to San Antonio, a city just itching for an MLB franchise of its own. Or Portland, another growing, hip city, and one rather sick and tired of having to root for Seattle teams.

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    The team and east Bay-area officials will have to find some private investment as well, perhaps through sponsorship agreements. The condition of the stadium remains a huge issue, and you can be certain that there are ongoing efforts to figure out a solution that involves keeping the A's content to remain in the East Bay. For now, A's marketers want stakeholders to know that they are committed to the area, but with one of the lowest salaries in the league, it will be difficult to attract the best players and field a competitive product. And combined with the incredibly poor facility, the fan experience may be one of the worst in the league and Oakland may not want the A's so much. But as a wise hippy once said, "You don't know what you got till it's gone" and also  "If you don't build it, or at least remodel the heck out of it, they will leave" (that one is actually mine). Nevertheless, funding will be quite difficult to obtain, but the A's appear to be patient. The league hopes that the good people of Oakland will figure it out, and as fans in many cities who have lost their beloved franchises have discovered, having an average team in a substandard facility is probably better than having no team at all.

  • An Organic Panic

    For two decades demand has outpaced supply in the world of Certified Organic ingredients, and this supply shortage has been a major part of the reason as to why organic products tend to cost so much. As such, the industry's manufacturers and retailers have pushed suppliers to convert from traditional agriculture to organic, a process that takes at least three years and requires both a financial investment and an ongoing third-party certification. This is a cumbersome process and can be cost prohibitive for smaller producers, but the payoff has always made the effort worthwhile since double digit annual growth rates insure that growers can charge a premium price for their Certified Organic ingredients. So what's the panic all about?

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    Imports. In the U.S., organic ingredients are certified under the supervision of the USDA, and these requirements (stated in the National Organic Program guidelines) tend to be the most stringent among all of the world's certifying bodies.  Domestic producers complain that the standards are much more stringent here than they are abroad, thus giving foreign "organic" producers a cost advantage. Turkey, a country that lacks many of the environmental and labor-related regulations that we have here in the U.S. and has a workforce that will work for much cheaper, has quickly become the largest supplier of organic corn and soybeans to the United States. Ukraine, Argentina, Romania, India, and other less developed nations that have loose standards are also getting into the act, and U.S. producers are having trouble competing in such an unfair environment. Isn't this lack of global standards one of the major problem with globalization in general? The playing fields are almost never truly "level" between nations when they trade, and an increasing number of people are becoming increasingly concerned about this. Ideally, imports and exports should balance out.

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    At present, organic producers in foreign nations don't have to disclose very much, and there are efforts among U.S. producers to require all organic imports to include certificates that allow the crops to be traced back to where they were grown. It is indeed unbelievable that this requirement isn't already in place, but as students of marketing should know, regulations are costly and these costs add up quickly. Less regulation is usually better than more regulation, but no wonder these domestic producers are bristling! Certificates of Analyses that provide Chain of Custody transparency are routine in many other industries, so a bit more oversight on the part of the USDA shouldn't be too much to ask. The good news is that prices for certain organic raw materials have dropped dramatically due to the increase in supply, and this benefits the consumer since U.S. producers haven't been able to keep up and high prices caused by limited supply are a huge barrier for many consumers. The bad news is that some of the ingredients are of questionable origin and might not meet the Organic Consumer's organic standards. It is clear that the USDA will have to do something about this problem and that any action will likely cost money, perhaps wiping out any advantages of importing cheaper raw materials. The organic lobby in the U.S. is a strong one and the industry now generates $40 billion annually (growing at about $4 billion per year), so one might expect that there will be some sort of action sooner rather than later.

  • Popeye's Looking North?

    Is Canada ready for "Louisiana (Loo-zee-anna) Fast"? The now ubiquitous TV advertising featuring a very likable, Southern-sounding, down homey spokesperson has increased brand awareness and shaped brand attitudes among a large segment of the general population in the U.S. over the past several years. It has been a very effective creative strategy and the campaign has run continuously for a while now. We now know what the brand represents. But did we know that the fast food chain is up for sale?

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    Yep. At just about $1.4 billion in annual revenue, Popeye's is not one of the major fast food brands despite its rather large advertising budget, and so it is ripe to be acquired by one of the fast food giants, one that might want to add Southern fried chicken to its product mix. In 2014 Burger King merged with Canada's "favorite son" Tim Horton's to create a North American fast food juggernaut called " Restaurant Brands" and based in Canada. The synergy of the two companies, one with a huge presence in the U.S. and the other in Canada, at least theoretically should enable the company to more effectively battle Wendy's, McDonald's, Yum Brands, and the host of fast food and fast casual upstarts throughout all of North America. And it does look like good strategy.

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    With KFC already established in Canada, marketers may be thinking that the Great White North is ready for another major U.S. fast food brand, and Popeye's Cajun-style, down home positioning is different than that of KFC and might resonate with the Canadian consumer. Indeed, one can be certain that if the $25 billion a year Restaurant Brands is interested in gobbling up this relatively small Atlanta-based company, you can be sure that marketers are actively engaged in consumer research to see if the concept will fly north of the border. If KFC is doing well, the question then revolves around how much room the market has for another competitor in this category. But one way or another, Popeye's will be sold to someone, Canada or no Canada. So why not join forces with Burger King and Tim Horton's? Expect something to happen over the next few months.

  • "Guilt-Free" Snacking?

    Pepsi is a brand known for carbonated soda and snack foods, but not necessarily for anything that a reasonable person would consider to be "healthy". And a previous effort to divide the company's products into "good for you" and "fun for you" by CEO Indra Nooyi fell largely on deaf ears despite the meteoric growth of natural, organic and "better-for-you" products over the past three decades and Pepsi's desire to get into the action. Yet "good for you" simply doesn't fit with Pepsi's traditional brand identity or long-established image in the marketplace, and Pepsi has no desire to re-position the whole brand. It's a frustrating place for a marketer to be. But if at first you don't succeed, by all means try again, but change the wording a bit.

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    Use the term "guilt-free" instead "good for you" and you have Pepsi's latest effort to exploit the long-established and still vibrant health and wellness trend. It sounds like a pretty general way to describe a category of products, but this is done on purpose. The FDA has already indicated that it is in the process of revisiting the guidelines for using the term "healthy", and so to the marketers (and lawyers) at Pepsi, "guilt-free" will likely pass regulatory muster even in a less liberal regulatory environment. Pepsi products classified under this new internal system contain "positive" ingredients such as whole grains and tend to be lower in calories (but some like Naked Juices still have lots of sugar); and Pepsi says that a full 45% of its product mix is classified as "guilt-free". Is this OK? Can this be challenged?

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    It most surely can and probably will be challenged down the road. If a suit is brought against the company and a court finds that the company intended to mislead the consumer into thinking its products are healthier than they really are, then there might be some trouble ahead. "Guilt-free" might be an intentionally over-general term and perhaps even borders on "Puffery" (a legal exaggeration such as "world's greatest hamburger"), but a case could be made for misleading marketing communication. Right? Pepsi only gets 12% of its total revenue from its regular and diet soda products, so the company has been diversified for quite some time. Will "guilt-free" be the positioning of the future for the brand? Or will this endeavor result in consumer confusion, brand dilution, and ultimately legal issues? We shall soon see.

  • A Retail Reboot

    As retailers continue to shrink their brick-and-mortar footprints or close down altogether, Amazon and others continue to grab market share. But don't worry. There will still be plenty of physical stores to visit; it's just that, in the future, there won't be as many of them. And the retailers that have the best chance of sticking around are actively spending money in an effort to upgrade the in-store technological environment.

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    Marketers have been pushing self checkout for many years, but the cost pressures on retailers caused by minimum wage increases in so many areas around the nation is driving a renewed effort to eliminate staff, reduce costs and shorten wait times. Apps are a crucial component in this effort, although Wal-Mart recently scrapped one such program because customers found the app difficult to use. But other retailers are eager to learn from the failed initiative and change the industry's check-out paradigm to improve the in-store experience while operating with fewer employees.

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    And speaking of fewer employees, it appears that the robots are indeed coming--in droves. Long used in back-end warehouse situations and manufacturing, robots have yet to be used for the purpose of interacting with customers on any meaningful level. Are we finally ready for robot clerks? Home Depot thinks that we are, and is in the process of testing some new customer service technology on the store level. Imagine a robot scanning your body and suggesting possible outfits!

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    The emergence of smart shelves is another trend in the retail technological environment replete with digitized price tags, product information and sales promotions. Laser and motion sensors will monitor behavior at the shelf level, tracking what products consumers handle but don't buy, for example. Interactive mirrors are already changing the in-store clothes-buying experience as some retailers are experimenting with technology that provides 360 degree views of the customer in the fitting room. In some cases, customers will be able to make decisions without having to try anything on at all. Good luck getting that sort of service on Amazon! 

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    One thing is for sure, if brick-and-mortar retailers are to compete with the lower cost e-commerce business model, they will have to dramatically improve the in-store experience. And this surely involves offering a range of cool services that are not found online. But technological bells and whistles won't be terribly effective unless the consumer perceives that there is added value in whatever changes take place. If the consumer isn't the focal point in this new paradigm and marketers are instead worried about cutting costs, the path to the future will be very rocky indeed. 

  • A Whole Makeover?

    Beset by fewer customers and declining prices, Whole Foods Markets is facing the reality that it might not have the right Marketing Mix to face the future. With many financially healthy retailers reducing their brick-and-mortar footprints, more than a dozen "zombie retailers" likely to close over the next year or so, and a continued consumer migration to e-commerce, Whole Foods faces the very real possibility of going from fan favorite to becoming a dinosaur in a short period of time.

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    Natural and organic foods are available everywhere, and until recently it often seemed that marketers over in Austin, TX were still partying like it was 1999, a time when Prince was already washed up and the retailer was in its prime. But competitive reality eventually forced the premium purveyor of progressive products to slash prices, offer more sales promotions, and introduce a loyalty program. Marketers even rolled out a smaller store format that mostly features its lower price-point private label brand called "365 by Whole Foods Market". Unsurprisingly, it is targeted towards a younger, more urban demographic. But things aren't going terribly well if one looks at profits and revenue as metrics for performance, as competitors have been able to match, and in many cases out do efforts by marketers at Whole Foods. It also doesn't help matters that low commodity costs have deflated food prices overall, squeezing margins and further hampering company performance. What to do?

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    Things have been on the downturn for a while now, so perhaps Whole Foods needs a brand makeover. A new brand identity anchored by a new logo, slogan, colors, etc., as well as a social media-supported national advertising campaign to re-introduce the brand might raise some eyebrows and start some positive buzz. What does the brand really stand for? Is there a way to infuse some more personality into it, one that is a bit less sanctimonious? Perhaps a really creative ad campaign could be developed and geared towards attracting younger customers while at the same time changing brand attitudes away from the "Whole Paycheck" reputation it has so deservedly developed and towards something much cooler. Whole Foods has done almost no advertising in its history, preferring the rather lazy "If you build it they will come" approach that worked well when they were the only game in town. But times change and brands must evolve to meet them.

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    Prices have already come down, but have marketers conducted enough research to better understand what it is that the independent, middle to high income, younger consumer actually wants in a store experience? The fact that the layout hasn't changed much in 30 years suggests that updates of all kinds might be in order. It seemed that 365 was a good idea, but perhaps a better move would be to blend the best of both concepts into one 21st Century brand. Right now Whole Foods isn't  doing anything that many other retailers aren't doing, and they are often doing it for at higher price points. This isn't exactly what we would call a "value proposition". Something has to give.

  • Coke Thinks Small

    Soda is losing favor among consumers, and this is no secret. The market has been declining for years, as sugar-conscious consumers have switched to lower-calorie substitutes and beverages that satisfy our vastly-enhanced zest for variety. Coke's Smartwater brand, for example, is experiencing double-digit growth in North America as it steals market share from other Coke products as well as those of competitors. This is known as "cannibalization", and for Coke it is all part of the strategy.

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    So in an effort to boost sales of the fizzy stuff, marketers have introduced some traditional products in smaller sized containers and has ramped up efforts to reduce the amount of sugar found in its products, in some cases replacing the ingredient with the latest in alternative sweeteners (adios to aspartame). Marketers are off to a good start as sales of smaller cans and bottles increased by 10% last quarter. But again, most of these users are probably folks who formerly purchased larger sized Coke products. Eventually the company will have to make demonstrable progress in attracting more new customers, as existing Coke drinkers enjoy greater variety within the brand. Can marketers convince more people to drop their energy drink or functional beverage and pick up a smaller-sized Coke? Will the latest batch of low/no sugar product introductions attract a sizable fan base amid a decline in "diet" sodas? Can a brand that has resorted to a vague and unconvincing slogan like "Taste the Feeling" regain some much-needed mojo? Marketers must do better than the over-generalized, over-globalized messaging they have favored over the past several years. Efforts to attract young adults and teens without appearing to pander to them must be stepped up. And Coke might need a bit of a makeover to accomplish this difficult task. Let's see what happens.

  • Fewer Seats, More Money

    Sometimes less can actually be more, and though it looks like a contradiction, it's certainly true in the world of spectator sports. For the most part, new stadiums for football and baseball teams feature fewer seats than they have in the past. And even older stadiums are downsizing in an attempt to reduce capacity. At Coors Field in Denver, Colorado for example, a relatively inexpensive remodeling effort eliminated about 5,000 lousy seats and replaced them with a rooftop bar. The place is always packed no matter who the Rockies are playing.

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    It's happening all over, and the latest example is at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami where the NFL's Dolphins have eliminated about 10,000 of the worst seats in the place and retrofitted the remainder of the stadium with much nicer seating. All fans are 25 feet closer to the action as part of a $500 million renovation. The result? Fewer seats has resulted in more revenue as marketers were able to charge more money for more premium seating options. In one area of the facility, over 2,000 seats were replaced with 32 "living room" boxes and nine outdoor suites, and customers paid handsomely for the luxury. 

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    Success stories like this have made marketers across all types of spectator sports think a little harder about the benefits of "quality over quantity". Movie theater chains have also engaged in the practice, opting for enhancing value over generating volume, which has fallen over the last decade or so. For sport properties, this is a good strategic move in an age where an ever-increasing number of people are consuming sport indirectly through media channels rather than directly by attending the event. Making the experience a better one for those who do want to go to the game is simply excellent strategy. We should be seeing much, much more of this sort of thing in the future.

  • Outside the OtterBox

    It's been a lot of fun watching OtterBox, once a tiny company making colorful smartphone cases in rural Fort Collins, Colorado, essentially dominate the world of mobile accessories. At least it certainly seems that way considering the amount of brand awareness the products enjoy and the level of brand equity that marketers have built up over a relatively short period of time. Indeed America is replete with such success stories.

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    And yet marketers at OtterBox have largely failed to think outside the proverbial box in terms of developing new products for new markets, a strategy called "Diversification" in the famous Ansoff Matrix, a model that should be studied by every student of marketing. Instead, they have been quite content to further penetrate the consumer market for phone protectors and other accessories. Until, very recently that is.

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    Last year, new management took a close look at the rather fragmented "business user" market and quickly discovered an opportunity. The result of this analysis is a product line targeted towards business professionals (and the companies they work for) called "uniVerse", which now features a modular iPad system introduced at the company's very own uniVerse B2B Summit. The system not only protects, but also allows for sliding accessories such as camera systems, payment readers, storage, and even a carbon monoxide monitor. OtterBox is now working with 80 accessory partners. And how is all that going?

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    Smashingly, and thanks for asking. Diversification has helped the company have its best quarter ever, although business-to-business sales represent only 2% of revenue at present. So it looks like the sky is the limit for this very impressive brand as it penetrates a whole new market. It's certainly smart strategy to expand one's current market, but a savvy marketer must always think outside the box look for new opportunities in other markets, domestic and international. Speed-to-market for this type of product is very important for this market leader as knock-offs will soon be in abundance, but so far it looks like OtterBox marketers are more than up to the challenge.

  • Oranges Still Losing Juice

    Florida has always been known for warm weather, sunshine, beaches, spring break, COPS episodes, tacky attire, tourists, professional sports teams no one cares about, elderly Northeastern transplants, hurricanes, and of course, oranges. But still reeling from the long-term effects of a dramatic decline in juice demand as well as a nasty disease that kills citrus trees and reduces crop yield, an increasing number of orange growers in Florida is now turning towards peaches, pomegranates, olives and other potentially profitable crops in hopes of reversing regional agricultural fortunes.

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    And so far it's going pretty well. A one-two punch from the uncontrollable external marketing environment (market trends and natural environmental factors) has made this shift a necessity for many growers in the state. Consumption of orange juice has halved in the U.S. since 2005 and, as a result, production has decreased by as much as 70% over the same period. This isn't good news for an industry that still supports about 62,000 jobs in the state (more than coal production supports nationally) or for the state itself, so I would expect that Florida would have programs to help farmers make the transition, but, hey, it is government we are talking about after all. One must not expect too much from public policy makers even if the OJ industry is the state's second largest after tourism. Oy!

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    Not much can be done about declining OJ consumption considering how much sugar oranges naturally contain as well as the wide availability of substitute beverages on the market today. And the federal government, the state, as well as the growers themselves have spent $225 million for research so far to combat the disease , called "greening", but it has all been to little avail. Other crops have shown more resistance to threats in the natural environment, which is promising indeed, but so far the research has been scattered and conducted by only a handful of academic researchers. Perhaps it's high time for Florida to shift some of those taxpayer dollars towards supporting research on crops for which there is a healthier market demand and in the hands of the growers who must make the transition. Or maybe just let the free market do its work. Either way, for growers in the Sunshine State, the seeds of change are already in the breeze.

  • Ads Not Terribly Super

    Perhaps America just wasn't in the mood to have much fun this year. Maybe most advertisers decided to play it safe and offer a somewhat controversy-free, rather mundane set of $5 million ads. Whatever the reason, 111 million viewers saw what was a very boring game up until the fourth quarter, highlighted by a very good halftime show that was surprisingly controversy free, as well as some well-made, but also rather dull advertisements. This was my 11th year analyzing the ads for Colorado and national media, and for $5 million a pop, perhaps we should always expect the best.

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    Indeed, both Fox and the NFL had right of refusal for all advertiser content and so anything too polarizing was not allowed. Slightly "political" ads by Audi (a very confusing ad), Budweiser (a foreign company making an immigration statement) and 84 Lumber (who??) were met with some backlash and roughly a 50-50 split on viewer likability. 84 Lumber, for its part, is an unknown entity and was just trying to generate as much publicity as possible, and its original submission was rejected by the powers that be. The commercial's entire purpose was to get the viewer to see the rest of the story online, a tactic pioneered by the previously over-sexed and now subdued Go Daddy! and its sexy endorser race car-driving endorser Danica Patrick many years ago, but I for one still don't know what it is the company does. I assume they sell lumber, but one wouldn't know it from watching the ad.

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    Speaking of Go Daddy!, rival SquareSpace filled the vacuum left by the perennial advertiser's absence with a great spot featuring John Malkovich in a co-branding effort that also indirectly promoted his new fashion line. Simply brilliant! The first live Super Bowl ad was barely noticeable, and for the most part, it looked to me like about 1/3 of the spots during the broadcast were for TV and movie trailers that were most likely in some way or another affiliated with Fox or one of its friends. Mr. Clean, Skittles, and Tide stood out for both humor and brand integration throughout their respective spots. As usual the car ad messages, with the exception of Kia's "eco-warrior" concept with Melissa McCarthy, got lost in whatever stories they were trying to tell. That happens every year. Overall, I expect a more lively selection next year as America begins to grow weary of all the divisiveness and also that the price will rise to about $5.2 million for a 30 second spot. Ad agencies can do better and with that kind of investment we expect that they should do better. We've seen some great things from them over the years, but this one was unremarkable. And next year? Who knows? Next year will be a whole new ballgame.

  • Chains Serious About Food Safety

    Food safety is a big deal to most consumers, but many of us don't think about the risks we take when we go "beyond the pale" and venture outside of the familiar comfort of chain restaurants. We love variety, especially among the young adult crowd, but many of us (especially the not-so-young adults) also like the familiarity inherent in knowing exactly what we are going to get each and every time. Chain restaurants do very well for just that reason, and fast food junkie President Trump recently praised Wendy's and McDonald's for maintaining what he described as "a certain standard" and remarked that he thinks "you're better off going there than maybe some place that you have no idea where the food is coming from." This sort of straight talk is certainly a primary reason why he was elected, and also certainly happens to make a very good point.

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    Independent eateries that produce food in smaller batches can be very yummy, but also very sketchy indeed, and chain restaurants often do have better food safety practices on average. With 48 million people affected by food-borne illnesses each year, perhaps this is something that more consumers should consider. Chains get inspected more often by regulators, sometimes hire their own third-party auditors and are more concerned with brand reputation on a large scale than smaller operators, so we shouldn't be shocked that they follow more regimented, "corporate"  procedures. A 2013 poll conducted by the CDC found that chains are more likely to have a certified food manager on staff and are more likely to do basic disease-reducing procedures like checking the temperature of hamburgers. Just last week university researchers found that non-chain restaurants had a rate of 9.6 violations per inspection versus 6.5 for chains.

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    Chains or no chains, that's still far too many violations for my taste and for sure, lots of additional problems occur further up the supply chain in places where the restaurant often has less control. Vegetables are often a culprit here. Indeed chains have engineered out much of the possibility for human error through automation, the use of frozen ingredients, and a move towards more centralized prepping. As Chipotle found out to its dismay, using a huge number of independent local suppliers and fresher ingredients increases the chances for spreading food-borne illnesses. And the brand has yet to recover from all of the negative publicity.

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    Experts say that when operators ensure a safe supply chain, follow basic food safety protocols, and keep employees healthy and clean, the chances of someone getting something nasty are minimized. It's not to say that small operations don't do these things, since many of them have high standards and experience few problems, and of course, large chains do sometimes experience highly-publicized food safety issues. Generally speaking, however, smaller operations might often be better at food and dining quality, but on issues of food safety, the chains are hard to beat.

  • Super Ad Blitz

    The Big Game is big for both the NFL faithful and the marketers who want to reach them. It'll cost $5 million on average to run a 30 second ad spot during this year's Super Bowl, up only $200,000 from last year. I say "only" because the cost of an ad has doubled in the past 10 years due almost entirely to the massive size of the audience (about 110 million people) and the level of engagement marketers expect viewers to have (there is lots of hype surrounding the ads each year). With media so very fragmented these days, this is truly a once-a-year opportunity.

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    As one might expect, advertising agencies do their best creative work for the Big Game because for marketers of branded products, this is a very big deal. Not only is the ad space expensive, but the average production cost of an ad runs about $1 million, and marketers these days spend big bucks promoting the ad itself, often using PR and interactive marketing tactics. For small companies, the whole idea has become cost prohibitive, and so only the larger brands should be competing in this space. And the agencies themselves can leverage successful ads and gain future clientele who would gladly pay handsomely for comparable work.

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    Not every ad gets approved by the network and the league as Go Daddy! found out several years back (too risque), and retailer GNC discovered this year when it was revealed that the NFL has a blanket ban on nutritional supplement ads. Who knew? Another company, 84 Lumber, a retailer placing its first (and possibly last) Super Bowl ad in an attempt to recruit 400 manager trainees and introduce the brand, was asked to alter a spot that showed a border wall because it was too political. And we can probably thank the NFL censors for that one in advance, since ads that are too controversial are probably not appropriate for social settings involving people and alcohol. Just like bar rules--no discussion of religion or politics is recommended in these sorts of situations. The vast majority of people do watch the game in a social setting, so this is not an overreaction. Of course none of this logic will stop a few brands from taking the opportunity to get our attention by preaching to us and bumming us out, a practice that I am beginning to very much dislike, especially considering the politically charged climate at present. I know it's Sunday, but it's Super Bowl Sunday. Let's give it a rest. Budweiser, for example, will have an immigration-themed ad, which in my opinion is highly inappropriate considering about half of the audience is likely to become angry and things could get contentious. The ad might get your attention, but not in a way that's likely to unite a room full of people drinking beer. Thanks but no thanks, Budweiser!

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    At $5 million for 30 seconds, marketers should instead focus on reinforcing the brand while entertaining the viewer. It's a great time to introduce a new product or launch an ad campaign for the year, but a very bad time to take a stand on an issue or ruin the festive mood of viewers in any way. And marketers who blow most of their annual budget on this event are truly wasting their money. Successful marketers integrate several mutually-reinforcing elements of promotion over a period of time rather than rely on one lucky hit. Of course that won't stop a company or two from trying it anyway. One thing is for sure. If the game stinks people tend to stop watching the ads as well, and so everyone is hoping for a close contest. Enjoy the game and try not to argue about immigration.

  • Turning To India

    Faced with flagging sales of the iPhone and slowing growth in China, Apple has seemed to be in somewhat of a quandary about how to find new growth for the brand. But perhaps the company was merely busy working on a deal to manufacture products in India, which may be just the antidote for the global powerhouse.

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    For Apple, India not only represents a way to manufacture iPhones cheaply, without all of the costly labor and environmental regulations present in more developed nations, but also a huge opportunity for market development. Apple has only a 5% market share in the huge country and, as a global brand, marketers would naturally want to increase the brand's global footprint in an emerging market like South Asia. Apple hopes that a new relationship with the Indian government, surely involving a set of tax breaks amidst much mutual goodwill, will allow the company to open stores, which would surely propel the brand's market share.

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    India, for its part, has been actively seeking foreign investment. Apple has lots of excess capital to spend and is experiencing slowing growth in its largest markets. Competition in India is fierce among mostly low cost brands, and Apple phones don't come cheap. But Apple is a major global brand and can certainly make efforts to appeal to the higher income Indian consumer, who may be ready for a luxury smartphone option. Unfortunately, Apple is a bit late to be on the forefront of the Indian smartphone boom, but it can certainly arrive late and offer a compelling brand value proposition. It looks like marketers will get their chance.