Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Tour de France Brings Bike Marketing Season

We're wrapping up that time of year again, the time when the ecosystem that surrounds cycling can take advantage of the world's greatest bike race to pimp their wares. For people that are new to cycling, it can be an exciting time filled with amazing demonstrations of new products and new technologies. But for those of us who've logged a few miles in the saddle, it can be kind of funny watching the marketing circus that celebrates Tour time.

Here in Silicon Valley, we're always looking for the latest technology, for that new new thing that disrupts everything that has been done traditionally. With cycling, selling technology improvements, or the snake oil of technology improvements, is a time-honored practice. And the tour often fuels a hungry market of consumers, anxious to find that edge that will make them feel faster on the bike paths and beyond -- if they make it that far.

When you've logged a lot of miles on the bike, it's easy to get annoyed by the technology fashionista world of recreational sports. To quote from the Fred page on Wikipedia:
More recently, particularly in the US, a Fred is more often somebody with higher quality and more expensive cycling equipment than his or her talent and commitment would warrant. For example, a stereotypical Fred by this definition would be an individual with little cycling experience who watches the highlights of a few Tour de France stages, then goes to a bike store and purchases a Trek carbon fiber Madone in Team Discovery colors, along with Team Discovery shorts and jersey. Thus outfitted with equipment virtually identical to that which Lance Armstrong used, far more expensive than that used by many high-standard racing cyclists, and more costly than many automobiles, the "Fred" then uses his bicycle merely to ride on a cycling path at 15 mph (24 km/h), something which even the most casual untrained cyclist can manage on an inexpensive hybrid bicycle. Some use "Fred" in a somewhat similar matter, but more synonymous with a roadie poseur. However, a Fred isn't necessarily someone who intentionally tries to put forth an image of being better or more knowledgeable than they are. Rather, a Fred is an inexperienced or unskilled cyclist who gets some top high-end or copy-cat racing gear for any reason. Unlike most poseurs, a Fred may still ride lacking some fundamental piece of competitive roadie equipment or style.
Why did the "Fred" buy that stuff? He has been sold on it through the power of the Tour marketing engine and the cycling industry's symbiotic ecosystem.

On Cycling and Innovation
What most Freds forget -- and what most cycling industry marketing tried to hide -- is that the bicycle has been around in it's modern form for about a hundred years. If you wanted to get picky and just talk about the racing bikes being used, look at races from fifty years ago. While you can pinpoint a lot of small differences in materials and configurations, recognize that basic frame geometry, brakes, and drive train are essentially the same basic design as what was being used this year.

Sure, the gearshifts are on the brake levers, the gears index, there are 22 gear options instead of 10, and the frames are made of carbon fiber instead of steel, but the basic design is essentially the same.

Now don't get me wrong, there have been some significant improvements in the past fifty years, things that make it much easier for the average rider to log lots of miles, go faster, or simply enjoy aspects of their ride, but these transformations are not a yearly Moore's Law kinds of innovation. Here are a few of the innovations that I would call noteworthy over the past fifty years:
  • Spandex and advanced textiles - wool is great for some things, but nobody really wants to ride in wool cycling shorts.
  • Index shifting and brake-lever shifters - there are a lot of awesome aspects to the old friction-based shifters (much less wear and tear, interchangable components, silent shifting), but who can deny the benefits of being able to change gears without having to let go of the handlebars. 
  • Material advances using aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, ceramic - modern bicycles benefit from 30 years of advances in material science enabling optimization across a range of requirements. Sadly though, these days that often translates into a rather generic set of carbon fiber pieces and a regression to the mean in frame design.
Many 'innovations' aren't really designed with the consumer or rider in mind. Instead, they represent new approaches to manufacturing that let the bike manufacturers build things more cheaply and more generically. Here are a couple of examples:
  • Threadless headsets - sold as having a number of advantages, the biggest advantage was that a manufacturer could build fewer forks. Instead of fitting each fork to each bike, one fork could be used on many bikes.
  • Compact frames - sold as stiffer, lighter frames, this design moved a lot of sizing and frame fit to the seat post.
Perhaps the best example comes from classic frame builder Dave Moulton. Check out this post, Selling The Benefit, from his blog. It's a great example with 1960's Cinelli frames.

Finding Peace with Innovation Marketing
If your thinking about cycling and getting excited, it's also natural to get excited about some of the amazing hardware that you can take advantage of. I remember watching the battles between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond and wishing that I could afford one of those first generation Vitus carbon frames. Hell, a couple of years ago I had dreams about adding a 28-tooth gear, imaging myself effortlessly pedaling up Old La Honda. Eventually though, you'll find that the miles you ride and your wallet will let you in on that deeper truth -- it's your legs, your heart, and your lungs that will carry you down that road, not that carbon-titanium-synthetic-oval-power-meter.

If you're getting ready to purchase a bike this year, then you're probably going to need to do some research to find what's available and what's right for you. The excitement that you feel when you look down at your machine, that sense of confidence you feel as you turn the pedals, will give you a boost up a few hills. But remember, this isn't like your iPhone or your iPad. They aren't rolling out new apps everyday, and you don't need to keep looking for the new new thing. The odds are that that new new thing is just an illusion, a marketing wrapper around something you don't really need or want.

Friday, July 20, 2012

How Marissa Mayer Became Wayne Gretzky

So the top story in this week's news around here was Marissa Mayer taking over as CEO of Yahoo. Sarah Lacy had a nice look at the situation with, Why on Earth Did Marissa Mayer Say Yes to Yahoo? All in all, part of what made this such big news is just how unexpected this is. You've got all of the right elements for a great story.

First there's the Yahoo story: 
Once dominant Internet company, stumbling through repeated leadership challenges. So much potential (users, technology, brand), if it could just find the right missing ingredients to keep it's leadership position in today's market.

Then there's Marissa Mayer:
Technology celebrity/rock star with some big trophies from one of the dominant Internet companies of the 2000's. Sort of a female Buckaroo Banzai, she was a notable player on the team that repeatedly beat Yahoo in those championship games of several years back. In that way, she is a nod to accepting that strategic wrong turn that Yahoo took so many years ago -- 'if we had just gone that way, WE would have been Google.'

It's that sort of 'bring in a star to build a dream team' solution that makes so much sense in a theoretical world, but doesn't always play out in reality. Here's a great example.

The Great One
Years ago, the St. Louis Blues found themselves in playoff series after playoff series, but were unable to unable to win the cup. This despite having one of the top goal scoring forwards, Brett Hull. When St. Louis traded for Wayne Gretzky, there was this idea floated that, not only had they added this missing ingredient that would carry them through to the Stanley Cup, but we should also be prepared to be blown away by the combination of Gretzky and Hull. But it didn't happen. Chemistry, it turns out, is more than the sum of a couple of great ingredients.

Marissa Mayer may face a similar situation at Yahoo. Sure, there are all of the things that you can say make for a perfect fit, but the challenges that Yahoo faces are probably deeper and more entrenched than what you see on the surface. More often than not, the myth of a single hero as a solution to a systematic challenge is just that, a myth. Ultimately, only time will tell if there is real chemistry here... and real change.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Redefining the Political Divide in America

A couple of weeks ago, I happened to catch part of a radio program that featured New York Times columnist Gail Collins discussing her new book, As Texas Goes...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda. While I haven't read the book, one of the themes that she talked about was a divide between the crowded places and the empty places. Quoting from another piece from her on the topic,
Our biggest political division is the war between the empty places and the crowded places.

It's natural. People who live in crowded places tend to appreciate government. It's the thing that sets boundaries on public behavior, protects them from burglars and cleans the streets. If anything, they'd like it to do more. (That pothole's been there for a year!) The people who live in empty places don't see the point. If a burglar decides to break in, that's what they've got guns for. Other folks don't get in their way because their way is really, really remote. Who needs government? It just makes trouble and costs money.
I think it's a great summary concept. As she noted in the program, while most of us would be hard pressed to find find a truly empty place, the right uses this as a thematic ideal for selling. The myth of the empty space. Like slender in fashion. Or youth. Adventurer. Wealthy playboy. An aspirational ideal that we connect with on a thematic level. Definitely worth reflecting on.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Walmart and Ad Video Demographics

Have you seen some of these recent Walmart steak commercials? The Dallas one seems like it's in heavy rotation on my TV. What I'm struck by every time this thing runs is the casting and the production quality, the look and feel of this commercial.

The 'guests' at this 'steak-over' event are not beautiful models or 'elegant restaurant guests on a special night out'. Instead, the casting looks like they found a pool of extraordinarily average people. It's like they specifically went casting at the local church picnic or, as funny as it might sound, the local Walmart. Put simply, the commercial feels like it was shot by Walmart customers for Walmart customers.

From the 'host' to the lighting and the video, this commercial feels like it might have been put together by a local video company, not by a slick, high-end corporate marketing team crafting television advertising for one of the worlds leading retailers. And, in a way, that's what I think makes this such an interesting piece. This isn't an accident. This is design. Walmart didn't just get stuck with some crappy, poorly produced advertising, this is a campaign.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Orbitz vs Mac Users: Personalization or Price Scam

Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article about how travel site Orbitz serves pricier hotel results to Mac users (link on the story on MacRumors). It looks like the story has gained a lot of traction ala Mac users feeling like their getting worked over by the travel site and Orbitz attempting to defend their practice by saying that the results are the same, but Mac users tend to prefer more expensive hotels.

Perhaps the funniest thing about the outrage surrounding this is the underlying expectation from many people that the page that they see is identical to the page that is produced on the computer sitting next to them. Even when we log in to a site that includes our name in the top corner, we want to believe that what we're seeing is essentially the same as everyone else. And it's not just the technology ignorant, you can even find programmers, web designers and sophisticated users with stories of forgetting that their view was different.

But the individualized experience scares people when it comes to shopping and price manipulation. No one wants to be the woman taken advantage of by the auto mechanic or the guy duped by the used car salesman. It's why we watch the scanners at the grocery store to make sure that the prices match, that the checker doesn't scan something twice, or that he doesn't weigh stuff with his thumb on the scale.

Manipulation and exclusion makes people angry. Consider cases like Dyson v. Denny’s Inc., the nationwide class action race discrimination law suit against Denny’s Restaurants. But beyond discrimination, when you go to a restaurant, it can be particularly frustrating when you're presented with a different menu and potentially different prices. Sure, I may not speak Mandarin and I might prefer orange chicken over duck tongues, but there is a part of me that is pretty sure that I would like to have the option. It's even worse with spicy food -- I really do want 'thai hot' and I'm pretty sure that the Szechuan version is probably quite a bit spicier than this.

It's a thin line between feeling helped and feeling cheated or manipulated.

And so, in our minds we envision this illusory model, the complete data set. We imagine that if we just had pure, unadulterated access to all of the real data, we could quickly and accurately match our interests. If we could just see the results of the Google algorithm without the bias of our previous behavior, that we could do better. But our cognitive expectations and the tools that we've developed to manage truth versus manipulation have become obsolete in this modern information world.

We compare the price on the shelf to the price at the checkout, when the prices are being written dynamically as we walk past them in the aisle. Each person that walks may see a different price. You may even see a different price each time you pass by.
  • Oh, you're interested in those? How much would you pay if there were only two left? 
  • So, you're pretty sure about that flight that you looked at a couple of minutes ago? I'm sorry, the seat that was $50 less is gone; perhaps you'd better commit this time. 
  • Pregnant? Maybe we can help change your shopping habits with coupons for unscented moisturizer. 
  • Do you work at Facebook or in the Bay Area and are in charge of monitoring ads for scammy behavior? Everything is fine because we don't serve our scammy ads to addresses in that region.
  • Are you a politically conservative and need some info to support some outlandish quote? Here's the alternate version of history that you were looking for... with pictures!
This is the reality of life in a dynamically written big data world. And so, while we might be okay with -- or benefit from -- Google search results taking our location or our browsing history into account when presenting results, we worry that the results may also be shaped by corporate sponsors, political agents, or even an overreaching, heavy-handed effort to make Google+ successful.

Of course, Google is easy because we know search is a dynamic system. The reality is that, as you look across the vast expanse that is the Internet, the world that you experience and the truth that you see is yours alone. And it may be shaped by your location, your politics, greedy bastards manipulating you for profit, or even some unseen, unimaginable agenda that spans time and demographics. Perhaps it's time to re-envision our epistemology for the Internet age.