Why Doing Just One Thing Really Well Can Be Enough

Source: http://nottingham.openguides.org/?ASDA...

A trip to Asda in Luton over the Christmas holiday offered a clear picture of how businesses work best when they stick to their core mission. Asda’s purpose is clear from the moment you step inside the door: it competes on price. You go to Asda solely because it promises that its products offer the best value in the marketplace. The idea isn’t a particularly original one, but too often businesses, particularly ones that are successful and undergo rapid expansion, lose sight of what attracted consumers to them in the first place.

The architects of modern-day Asda, entrepreneurs Noel Stockdale and Peter Asquith, were inspired by the supermarket model that they saw in the U.S. – a high-volume model housed in aircraft hangar-sized spaces the size of which, by the seventies, had necessitated the migration of retail from town centres to the edges of conurbations. The larger spaces allowed these supermarkets to sell non-food products, which had much higher margins; sales of these items allowed supermarkets to keep food prices low, thus creating a virtuous circle.

By the late 1980s Asda had expanded from its base in the the north of England into the south and purchased Gateway superstores for £705 million in 1989. The company was overstretched and its core message – nowadays articulated in its slogan ‘Britain’s Lowest Priced Supermarket’ – had become lost. Asda advertising focused on the freshness of its produce rather than its value.

However, in the nineties, around the time John Major coined the term ‘back to basics’, a new management team did exactly that with Asda. The Asda brand returned to the notion of the price promise and TV ads featuring celebrities and housewives tapping themselves on their backsides so that they can hear the clinking of coins in their back pockets – money they saved from shopping at Asda! –was reintroduced. In 1999 Asda was purchased for £6.7 billion by U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart – the business that Asda had most hoped to emulate; Asda CEO, Allan Leighton, spent time at Wal-Mart’s home town of Bentonville, Arkansas, to learn from Wal-Mart’s operations and marketing.

Businesses always worry about moving forward, but what Leighton and the management team at Asda in the nineties did – and what it’s current leadership continues to do – is to remember that doing one thing extremely well is enough. That one thing might not even be your idea; but if if you execute it better than anyone else, then it might as well have been.

Reinventing the City Through Hedonistic Sustainability

English: Bjarke Ingels at Helsinki Design Week...

Architect Bjarke Ingels of Copenhagen-based practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) has made his name with numerous extraordinary buildings that, in the hands of someone with less vision, might have ended up as something quite routine. He has imagined housing projects, mixed-use developments, civic buildings, a psychiatric hospital and a waste-to-energy plant in ways that enable us to see the prosaic in new, dynamic ways.

Ingels is also, to some degree, an iconoclast, choosing to publish a graphic novel Less Is More – not a coffee table monograph – that explains and demythologizes the architectural process. In a profession that thrives on obfuscation, he is a populist who thrives on offering guidance.

“By making [architecture] nonsensical and mysterious you can create the illusion that it’s complicated and difficult to understand,” he told me last year. “And therefore there’s some kind of mystery. Apparently architects can understand things nobody else can.”

While he has numerous projects in development, including his first commission in New York City – an apartment building on 57th Street at the West Side Highway – it is his work in Copenhagen, including the 8-House, a mixed-use project in the Ørsted neighbourhood, that currently best demonstrates his vision. The development feels like you’re at the very end of the city, indeed many of the apartments have views over flat, grazing land that extends lazily into the distance, yet it is only minutes from the city centre via the metro. Childcare, retail and leisure facilities are all available within the development that has large, communal spaces for residents who live in light-drenched, compact duplex apartments.

The development has won numerous environmental awards and offers a clear sense of Ingels’ notion of ‘hedonistic sustainability’: that the environmental challenges faced by urban planners and architects can offer the opportunity to improve, not limit quality of life.

In 2011, he was commissioned to build a new DKK3.5 billion (UKP413 million) waste-to-energy plant that BIG beat 36 other firms from Denmark and beyond to design. It’s a great example of one of Ingels’ favourite lines: “But what if you could have both.” The plant, which will replace 40-year-old furnaces nearby on Kraftsværksvej Street, will be the single biggest environmental initiative in Denmark.

The plant will burn the city’s solid waste in order to generate green energy, thereby reducing its reliance on landfills. Equally importantly, the 90 metre tall structure will have a 31,000 m2 ski slope with views all the way to southern Sweden. In the summer it will function as a park with facilities for running and biking.

Instead of something that is placed out of sight on the margins of the city, BIG altered the perception of what a municipal utility might be and how it might affect the quality of life of Copenhagen’s citizens. Rather than being marginalized, the energy plant has been imagined as a destination, a way of creating electricity that enriches the urban environment.

Bjarke Ingels’ talk at the WIRED conference, October 2011

The Difference Between Two and Three Blueberries


Image via Wikipedia

A few days ago, when passing through Heathrow Terminal 3, I bought a Rainbow Fruit Salad from Eat, the ready-to-eat food retailer. (Anything to avoid eating the swill that is routinely served on airlines, nomatter how many ‘celebrity’ chefs they employ.) On the packaging the product description read: mango, kiwi, blueberries and pomegranate seeds. I happily ate my way through the larger chunks of fruit – mango and kiwi, which were at the top of the container and examined what was left. There was a scattering of pomegranate and, among the red seeds, some blueberries.

Three of them.

That’s right: three blueberries. Now, as a commodity, blueberries are relatively expensive in the UK. Despite their popularity with Waitrose mums who value the fruit’s antioxidant properties when feeding their darling offspring, the perennial is not widely grown in the UK and is priced accordingly. A quick check online showed that Waitrose blueberries retail at UKP26.60 ($41.00) per kg, and roughly – given imperial measurements and conversion rates – $18.00 per kg at Fresh Direct, where I get my deliveries in Brooklyn.

Fair enough, commodities are priced differently in different geographic locations. There are plenty of economic reasons for this. But how many blueberries does Eat, where product managers make decisions about the proportions of blueberries to other fruit in the Rainbow Fruit Salad, think are a satisfying amount for consumers to find at the bottom of its packaging? The packaging described blueberries as the third constituent of the fruit salad, so what should consumers expect to find when they peer into the bottom of the tub? Should the proportions be more even? Or should they lessen dramatically the further down the list one gets?

Might just two blueberries – as opposed to the three that I found in my lunch – be enough? That would, at least, ensure that the use of the plural was accurate. I enjoyed the fruit salad, and the product experience was diminished not by the quality, or the price (I was happy to trade up from the regular fruit salad, which was also on sale at the concession at T3). As a consumer, I was willing to pay a premium and Eat largely delivered on that expectation. But the choice to limit the number of blueberries left me feeling that Eat, to my mind, had made a mistake: the desire to add blueberries to the product had superceded the delivery of the product itself. The premium value proposition had become muddled – the very notion of paying more for something better had been circumvented.

Consumers will forgive a product’s shortcomings if they feel they have scored a bargain; but offer them something better and then pull back from the deal and lower priced alternatives become more appealing. And a disappointed premium customer is unlikely to trust a brand promise from the same company again.

Your Latte Addiction Explained

English: A photo of a cup of coffee. Esperanto...

As I write this, I’m drinking my first cup of coffee of the day. I thought about my first sip almost the moment I woke up. The first cup of coffee is a small daily pleasure that many of us use as a fixed point in the day: the beverage means that we’re ready to go now; the day can commence.

There was a cartoon that appeared in the New Yorker a decade or so ago that offered a summary lesson to entrepreneurs thinking about the drinks industry. The idea and execution and summary were simple. There were line drawings of two cups of coffee that had been sketched on a napkin. The one on the left had ‘50c’ written underneath it, and a big ‘X’ through both cup of coffee and price. The one on the right had a drawing of what appeared to be exactly the same mug and coffee. Underneath it was a price: ‘$2’.

The caption beneath the two cups of coffee read: Starbucks’ business plan.

It was a timely observation: at that point, many people were still getting used to the idea of paying double or triple what they were used to paying for a cup of joe. Having spent some time in Seattle in the mid to late nineties I’d witnesses that the model was one that was successful on a local level, but would the Starbucks model work outside out of the relaxed, crunchy environs of the west coast?

You, of course, know the answer to that. But Starbucks’ success in educating people to pay a multiple of what they were used to paying, for a slightly better cup of coffee, wasn’t the first time that coffee manufacturers and retailers have innovated in order to keep their product in the forefront of consumer taste. The invention of freeze-drying the stuff meant that consumers were offered the same properties as the ground iteration, but with a great deal more convenience. Just as people in urban areas were looking for ways to make their lives easier to compensate for the grueling demands and time restriction of industrial labour, a product came onto the market that allowed them to get their kick much quicker and with significantly less effort.

Coffee’s popularity in the US remained undiminished until just after the Second World War. (Consumption peaked in 1946 when the average American drank 46.4 gallons per person per year.) However, the post war era saw the rise of a whole other category of beverages which seemed more modern, upbeat and youthful: the soda. Coffee companies got worried: their product, which had long been associated with leisure in western markets, now appeared to be an old dowager in the face of the youthful vigour of Coca-Cola and the other products which appeared to reflect America’s new confidence and modernity. Coffee was perceived as your parents’ and grandparents’ drink.

Big Coffee fought back.

The trade association for the industry, the Pan-American Coffee Bureau, decided to reposition the product: it created the term “coffee break”. Creating a national campaign that reached even churches, coffee became something people (particularly the growing amounts of time-pressed women joining the workforce)  associated not with sipping, but with a kick that would get them through the day in an increasingly busy and complex working life. Having a cup of coffee was the equivalent of turning on after burners.

Coffee was no longer associated with leisure, but with wakefulness and potency.

Next time you head to Starbucks for your morning pick-me-up, remember that it’s not just your addiction that’s motivating you – it’s decades of cultural persuasion

My friend Martin Delamere reminded me that the Ploughman’s Lunch was also an agency creation. Any other examples?