Thursday, October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs vs. The Wall Street Protesters

              (not the way to get a job)

Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder, died today.  The first thing I thought when I heard of his passing this morning on my way to work, was, "Uh oh, there falls a keystone in the wall in the wall of American exceptionalism," meaning that America is losing the kind of wild imagination, when hitched to hard work and business genius, that spawned American phenonema like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Bill Gates. The tenacity of these characters, rooted in the free and rich soils of American society, sprung new products and services that changed the world and made America great . . . and hundreds of thousands wealthy.

For the past three weeks, protesters have occupied Wall Street, protesting everything from the profitability of banks to the Right-to-Work movement to corporate handouts.  I do not dismiss all of these grievances out of hand, as I strongly sympathize with the calls to end corporate welfare and the illegal wars overseas.  I'm also not willing to say that conditions are perfect today for finding decent work or starting your own business.  But 1976, when Jobs co-founded Apple, was much better?  Hardly.

Were Steve Jobs a 20-year-old at NYU today, would he be in a drum circle or marching for the right to have other people provide for his happiness or livelihood?  I don't think so, it would take time away from pursuing his goals. Look at the white sign in the lower right hand corner of this picture.  It says a lot about what's wrong with America today.

Steve Jobs dropped out of college to start a company.  He took a very large risk.  My ancestors packed up their stuff in England, Ireland, Germany and Lithuania, got on a boat to start over in country they'd never seen.  They took an even bigger risk.  Where is that kind of risk-taking today?

America, it seems to me, can only see rewards these days.  The unhappy coincidence of a faltering economy and the rise of global competition has made these rewards much harder to materialize.  I think we forget that between reward and risk comes the work of developing one's talents, merchandising them, relentless effort and making the most one can muster from whatever twe have.  Instead, America blames others for woes.  I myself am guiltly of this on occassion instead of focusing on what I can control most effectively: my own thoughts and behaviors.  We have the right to do so, but most are wrong in so doing. 

We each should feel a responsibility to develop our talents and make sure the world makes good use of them; in some cases, like Steve Jobs, we can become wealthy beyond our wildest dreams and literally change the world.  For most people, this means leading productive, peaceful lives in which we produce enough for ourselves, and even produce a surplus that provides for strangers (taxes or charity).  The protestors, now on their third-week of occupying Wall Street, may want to think about going back their job search. Or more likely, beginning one.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Objective of PR Should Be . . .

To help an organization achieve its objectives. Period.  Sounds shiny-strawberry-on-the-whip cream obvious, but all too often, it is not.  In a recent meeting, someone said, "Why don't we do x?"  And why not?
X sounded interesting
X was cool
And depending on how X was configured, X could be developed in a way that would help this organization achieves one of its objectives.  Let's call this legitimate objective "Y."
"What should X look like?  How will we pull off X? Wouldn't X be cool?"
From square one, X should be challenged, "How does X support Y, precisely?"
I my travels, I find PR people sometimes focusing on X; Y is an afterthought, or worse yet, a non-thought. 

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I have a new client whose name I can use because I'm going to tell you how smart he is . . . because he actually is pretty damn smart, and has this focus on True North, on the Big Y, that is refreshing.  His name is Joe Verbanic.  He's the Marketing Director for OSRAM/Sylvania's Automotive Aftermarket.  In a recent presentation to him on our 2011 plans, we had objectives spelled out, except they weren't the exact right "Y."  After listening to our presentation, he calmly, methodically, asked us to go back to those objectives and asked us to remember what he'd told us when we first presented our capabilities several months ago on the our Automotive Practice.  His "Y" was the proverbial strawberry-on-whip cream: "Will It Drive Sales?" or WIDS?  Then we talked about lots of X's, or things we could do to drive sales.  WIDS had secured reserved parking in the front row of the meeting attendees' minds, and after discussing--as is so common in every PR ideation/planning session--how this X would work compared to another, we went through lots of cool, creative ideas and put them to the WIDS test.  Some super interesting ideas didn't pass muster, so they fell off, as they should have. 

Because cool ideas are not the point. 

Achieving Y is the point.

 X serves Y, not vice versa.

Occasionally we forget that relationship, or don't consider Y as we should in the first place.  People in these meetings on the agency side are then often afraid to say so of their own idea ("I don't want to contradict myself in front of colleagues and clients") or even scarier, the clients' ideas ("I don't want to challenge the client's ideas and upset them or show disrespect") or most sacrosanct, a co-worker's idea ("Bad politics, they'll think I'm angling for pecking order with the client or higher ups on our side of the table.").  But if Y gets lost, as it sometimes does, we have to have the gumption to ask the question . . . especially if you're convinced that it doesn't help the cause.

                                                                         # # #

By the way, Joe really wants to know--especially now that it's getting dark earlier--and earlier if you're satisfied with how well you can see driving to work in the dark or driving home at night.  If you're not satisfied, you do something about it for less than an hour or your time and $50 bucks or less.  If you want to see what real people say about these (in short they LIGHT UP THE NIGHT, but won't last as long as stock), check this thread which gives contains a pretty good assortment of real people's experience with them.  Sylvania has actually improved the design to make the more a bit longer lasting in recent years.

Let's thank Joe V. for keeping Y, our shiny strawberry, in our gun sights.  Y is the Master, the PR is but the servant.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Tale of Two Turbos: Cruze vs. Jetta

Reuters has a good piece on turbochargers that ran yesterday that nicely sums up a good deal of the good on turbos, especially for the U.S. market.  Ten years ago, U.S. motorists enjoyed VW products that could get an honest 50 mpg highway (EPA said 49 mpg I seem to remember) from their stellar little 1.9l turbodiesel that went into the Golf and Jetta.  Decent U.S. compacts were seeing mid- to high-30 mpg highway.  Fast forward to today, and that gap between turbo gas and turbodiesel is quickly closing.  The ever-scrappy Scott Burgess of The Detroit News wrote a piece today on the new uber-fail Volkswagen Jetta (google the reviews, no one really likes it), which points out that the turbodiesel only manages 42 mpg, even though the engine has only gained 100 cc of displacement. 

 In Detroit's corner, the new Chevrolet Cruze will go up against the Jetta (and forthcoming, sure to be pretty competitive Ford Focus), and the Cruze Eco will get 40 mpg highway using regular grade pump gasoline and a very underspecified 1.4l gas turbo.  Pricing for the Jetta diesel was unvailable for the new model, but we know the Eco model of the Cruze will start at $18,175.   There's no way you'll be able to touch a new Jetta diesel for under $20K; even though they've made the car cheaper, the diesel adds a variable geometry turbo (as opposed to a simpler, waste-gate, non- variable geometry turbo), pricey high-pressure fuel injection (Cruze to use cheaper, less efficient port-fuel injection) and not-cheap exhaust aftertreatment that is far more costly than the conventional 3-way catalytic converter in the gas powered Cruze (oxides of nitrogen, and to a lesser degree, particulates--otherwise known to we wood-burners as "soot"--are still the bane of diesel exhaust).  Let's guess that the cost difference is $4,000.  Is $4,000 worth it for a 5% improvement on something that already gets 40 mpg?

Don't get me wrong, I love turbodiesels.  Diesel proponents would rightly point out that the Jetta would likely have 100 additional lb.-ft. of torque that would make the Jetta likely feel much more stout in daily driving.  But most consumers are not cross shopping torque ratings like this author.

My point: gas turbos, as pointed out in the Reuters piece, are likely to skyrocket in coming years.  Ford already said they'll offer gas turbos on 90 percent of their vehicles in coming years.  Full disclosure, GM and Honeywell are clients of my firm; I own neither GM nor HON stock.  That said, would I really like to own a Cruze turbodiesel, especially if they made a hatchback or wagon?  Hell yeah.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Out of the Category and Into the Culture: Hankook Case Study

Most auto suppliers have a fairly easy time earning media placements in the trades: a leadership change, a truly innovative new product, or an executive willing to shoot his mouth off on a trend will do the trick. Then again, the trades are supposed to cover your company and your products if you actually have news.

But what about non-automotive publications? If you have a consumer-facing product or service, one that actually changes the driving experience appreciably for consumers, how successful are you at earning coverage outside of automotive?

We call this the move from category (auto media) to culture (consumer-centric media). Interestingly, the media relations tactics--the story angles, the pitches, the contextualizing of your story--will also work in many cases for non-automotive media relations . . . . you just have to be a whole lot more clever about how to throw your pitch.

Let's take non-automotive business media as an example. The following happened last summer.

Hankook, a South Korean company and the 7th largest tire manufacturer in the world, was bringing their CEO to NY for a few days, and wanted some business press exposure. Mind you, Hankook's stock doesn't trade on U.S. exchanges, they have a fairly small North American footprint by way of employment and zero manufacturing in North America. So why cover them if you're Business Week, Time magazine or any of the wires (Reuters, Bloomberg, AP, Dow Jones), without a whiff of hard news?

The answer: make the story bigger than Hankook, but first and foremost, find the story. Here was ours. "Between the low-cost, low-tech Chinese and high-cost, high-tech Japanese there emerges a low-cost, high-tech tsunami of aggressive business growth from South Korean, Inc. Samsung, Hyundai (the only winner of the 2009 auto sales "carpocolypse"), LG all came to become ascendant in the U.S. market by providing incredibly quality, incredible value and in many cases best-in-class warranty. The Japanese are scared, and should be. The Koreans are coming. And winning. Hankook Tire is no different. They are the fastest growing tire company in the world with the world's highest margins. They are the #1 supplier to the fastest growing market in the world (China). And oh by the way their CEO will be in NY on these two days, would you like to talk to him?" We targeted five specific Tier 1 business outlets in NY and succeeded in securing interviews at four. For this company, in that media market, that's a win.

Too many times, PR people will lead with "Company x has a new product, want to talk to our CEO (of a nobody company)?" Why would they? Companies introduce new products everyday, so unless your firm is launching the new iPod beater, journalists have more importance things to cover, like say Apple or Google. Great pitches, like any good story, have the ability to make people care. It's more art than science, but trying to tell a bigger story is always a good place to start.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

On Independent Thinking and the Real Significance of the G8

Suffice to say that the Pontiac G8 has been receiving fairly stellar views for while now; click here to see’s “review of the reviews.”

Now there’s loose talk that the G8 will survive Pontiac’s demise as a Chevy or sorts, but GM (client) has not and will not confirm this. The enthusiast in me—as well the detached PR practioner—hopes they figure out a way to make this work.

The enthusiast loves this car because while everyone thinks “muscle car,” all accounts are that this is not the “beast-in-a-straight-line, but-I-wouldn’t-want-it-as-a-daily-driver/boy racer/aging-boomer-with-no-taste” car some might have guessed it would be. Where I live in Northville, Mich. (Ford country), I see a surprising number of these cars. I walk by one house every day that has a new-ish 5-series BMW in the driveway, and the G8 looks every bit to be its equal (the BMW I see, and the G8 I always see in the Cabbagetown area I live in are both white. . . nuanced menace. Dig it.) The PR guy likes it because making great product and creating "owner-advocates" is the best PR going for any consumer products company. I don't even own one and I find myself always talking about it.

Reports are that body integrity, structural rigidity, steering feel, brake feel/strength are all the equal of the benchmark 5 (people say Infiniti is coming up on BMW; having been in a recent G37, I don’t think BMW or Pontiac have much to fear . . . Carlos, check quality control bud . . . dash rattles? Come on, not in 2009). That the G8 has the beans under the hood to run with a 550i with the big mil is the least biggest surprise.

What I believe are the biggest markers of “quality” to most people in the showroom or on test drives. . . the whooomp with which the doors close; the body control and quick chassis recovery from railroad crossings or deep pocked Michigan roads; shutlines . . . the big Poncho/Holden can legitimately hang with the 5-series . . . that’s amazing. BMW can put a ton more money into pricey shocks, better/lighter/stronger structural materials, etc. because, well, it’s costs a lot more.

I think fans of GM should be elated, as should independent thinkers who believe that whoever makes the best cars should win; the doubters/cynics should wallow in some strong cognitive dissonance, because this isn’t about the G8 living on or not . . . it’s about having such kickass product development within the company that any GM product could and does compete with any BMW, let alone for at steep retail discount.
I owned two BMWs, a ’97 M3 and ’94 325iC. Both were great or good to drive, but horrifically expensive to own. If GM could make a G8-like car, this means they could make another car that equally baffled the cynics and delighted the open-minded drivers of America. Here’s to hoping they do (whoops, Camaro already is). Rock steady Tom Stephens, rock steady.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

What Granholm Should Say, But Likely Won't

Daniel Howes lays out a very cogent, disarmingly fair and hard to dismiss outline for what Michigan’s Governor should really say tonight in her State of the State address.

Given that she can’t run again (ok, at least not for that office), and has done very little to right a sinking ship in the last seven years (movie tax incentives aside), she could do much to get religion on restructuring state government and taxes—albeit late—as her tenure comes to a close.

Read Dan’s recommendations here. I wonder what Chris Bzdok, Traverse City's Mayor Pro Tem, would add to his prescriptions.