26 January 2011

The Fun Theory: Customer Experience Driving Behavior Change

Admittedly, I'm a little late on this one... But, I just came across The Fun Theory website.  The premise of it?  Make something fun and people will change behaviors.  So simple, yet how many of us have actually tried this approach with our businesses?  Make sure to watch the video of stairs versus an escalator for an example of how the theory turns into effective practice.

The site wasn't created out of purely altruistic reasons.  As it states, this is "An initiative of Volkswagen."  Even in this regard, though, kudos to the firm.  The branding on The Fun Theory site isn't heavy-handed, and clicking through the link to "See how Volkswagen use the fun theory" leads to a page highlighting ways the firm has applied the combination of fun and innovation to the challenge of being more environmentally responsible.

Volkswagen's claim that "every environmentally friendly innovation we create is built on that simple insight" may be a bit of stretch, but I'm willing to give the good folks at VW a bit of creative license.  It's delightful to see an approach that isn't derived from "do this or we're all gonna die" doomsday prognostications.

18 January 2011

Starbucks, Gum, and Customer Experience

Folks, I travel. I travel for work. I travel for fun. Sometimes I even travel out of some obligation. When I travel, I like to have gum. It's tasty, it's chewy, and it exercises my jaw when I find myself in a moment of solitude and don't feel like talking to myself.

Recently, I took an early morning flight. I mean early. Like, before the sun came up early. As a result, I had to get up even earlier. Earlier. Like, before the sun hears it's alarm, let alone hits “snooze” a couple of times while building up a pre-morning glow. Earlier. As a result, still sleepy myself, I left home without gum.

Not really an issue for a handy, ingenious, and all-around creative problem solver like me. “They sell gum at airports, right?” I said to myself while driving down a dark and desolate interstate. “Yes, they do,” I replied. It should be noted that this dialogue constitutes a “gum-would-be-handy” moment. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have actually been talking to myself, not out loud at least. I'd have been happily chomping a bit of tasty sweetness. Anyway, I managed, with minimal protestation, to convince myself that I would be fine and soon in possession of some delightfully delicious chewing confections.

Upon arrival at the airport, I quickly dispatched with the standard chores... parking, walking, security check. All was going swimmingly. Then I reached the concourse. Early. Earlier than early. The magazine stands were closed. The bookstores were closed. The gift shops were closed.

I did not panic. No. Starbucks was open. “They sell gum at Starbucks, right?” I whispered to myself. “Well, they sell lattes and scones, for sure,” I replied, thinking of the small pangs of hunger my early morning travel induced. “Maybe, they sell gum, too,” I offered to myself in a false sense of optimism.

Optimism is an interesting thing. It assuages fear, or at least takes the edge off. It can build hope. Under the right circumstances, it even builds expectation.

I feared Starbucks wouldn't sell gum. I hoped Starbucks would sell gum. I started to expect Starbucks to sell gum.

Starbucks sells gum.

I did a little wiggle of joy and relief. Just a little one. I ordered a latte and a scone, too, for good measure. I took my gum, my latte, and my scone on a slow saunter to my gate. It was a mildly triumphant saunter. “Mmm... yummy latte. Yummy scone.” I didn't mind the obvious premium I'd just paid for each item.

Breakfast in my belly, I reached for my prize purchase, the tin of Starbucks Sugar-Free Chewing Gum. The packaging evoked mouth-watering freshness and quality... Such an appealing shade of bluish-greenish-mintitude... Such a delightful little aluminum structure... I peeled off the plastic wrap and...

The tin fell apart. Apparently, the construction tolerances weren't quite so precise as to actually hold the two parts together. Being a handy, ingenious, and all-around creative problem solver, though, I simply fixed the tin with a couple creative bends and squeezes.

Engineering problem solved, it was time to move on to the gum itself. At first glance, again an image of freshness and quality. Round pieces comprised of two layers, one a thicker minty cool blue, the other a thinner pure icy white, each side, coin-like, imprinted with an outline of mint leaves. Surely, the product was about to deliver a moment of minty joy. And, it did. For something like a minute.

A minute? Argh. Really? That's it? Yup. I spit out the first couple pieces and tried again. “Surely, the mavens of mint who concocted this gum intended the flavor to last...” I suggested to myself. “Surely,” I replied, hoping to evoke optimism, but failing.

I popped another two pieces into my mouth, and used the timer on my watch to keep track of my newly invented Starbucks Gum Taste Decay Timing curve: 1 minute 22 seconds. Another attempt. Result: 1 minute 9 seconds.

Needless to say, I will NOT be buying any further gum from Starbucks. I may actually choose to go gumless rather than pay for the vaguely gum-esque chewing tablets available from the coffee kings of the Pacific Northwest.

What has me so disappointed in the whole Starbucks gum affair is my perception that the brand's stooped to shilling poor product rather than stick to the promise of a comprehensively great user experience. This is a brand that obsesses over how its baristas interact with customers, how to deliver consistent coffee flavor, the properties of the foam which floats at the top of a latte, the color and structure of furniture in its shops, the copy of each and every little sign on each and every little product it sells, and more.

And, all it takes is one bad product for me to be disappointed in Starbucks overall. On this one item, the brand has opted for style over substance. The look is premium and promising. It truly appeals. It implies it will follow a nice tall cup of joe with a minty mouthful of freshness. When the moment of truth comes, though, the product reminds me more of the hard, tasteless bubble gum I got when buying baseball cards as a kid than an upgrade over Orbit Sweetmint (my current chew of choice).

Bad Starbucks. I now wonder about where else the brand is cutting corners. I mean, I'm not worried that vanilla lattes will become watery anytime soon, but a vague skepticism has attached itself to any other item I see merchandised. From music to mugs, I am now much less likely to buy products complementary to the central coffee experience from brand Starbucks, which makes me an instantly less valuable consumer to the business.

It gets me thinking about the implications for my own business. What are we doing that is core to our brand promise? How well are we delivering it? If we are doing well, have we introduced complements to our central value proposition? How well are we delivering on these complementary aspects? Do they, potentially, confuse or distract from that core brand promise? Worse yet, might they disappoint in a way that undermines our ability to completely delight consumers?

I don't have the answers, but if there is a silver lining to my Starbucks gum experience, it is this: I have a greater appreciation of the impact of even small goofs on consumer perception and will be able to proactively assess my own team's actions. Maybe it was good I got the bad gum after all.

14 January 2011

Nits, Picks, and Language

In a most unfortunate turn of events for the Twinkies (small, twin-like creatures who inhabit my house), their return to school after the winter holiday break placed them in the midst of an outbreak of head lice. Yes, indeed. And I can hear your collective "Ick!", even feel your shudders of disgust.

Being away at the time of the outbreak, I only returned home a few days later to help in the cycle of laundry, vacuuming, and picking of nits out of hair. Several things struck me about the process of dealing with this particular personal pest.

First of all, the solution is a comprehensive and diligent war involving chemical and conventional weapons: pesticide laden shampoo, laundry detergent, disinfectants, vacuums, combs, and fingers.

To defeat the initial onslaught of these insect invaders is relatively simple; the shampoo kills off the first wave. The ticking time bomb of hidden nits is the real threat. These require hours of attention to detail and diligence to remove. Day after day, the removal and mitigation of future occurrences goes on.

And, it was in the midst of one long session of nit removal that it struck me... Lice, for thousands of years, were a constant companion for humans. Our language is rife with vocabulary and phrases derived directly from the campaign to control these critters: nit pick, nitty gritty, fine-toothed comb, and so on.

The realization left me exceedingly thankful for the help of modern chemistry and appliances. It also got me to wondering... A hundred years from now, what terms will be taken for granted by our descendants as a result of our current attentions.

Not that cruising the web or playing video games or goofing with iPhone apps is the same as dealing with lice, but with all the hours each day we have for these things could they be impregnating our language with new terms of future mystery? I'll think about it as I surf the web on my smartphone...