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CPG’S RETAIL REALITY CHECK

THE FUNDAMENTAL TRUTHS ABOUT URGENT CHANGE

CPG brands are feeling pretty good about now. COVID-created nesting becomes the new normal and suddenly Amazon’s US grocery sales pop 45%. People cook more, they clean more, they stock up more on everything from toys to tech, and take it from someone who works with a sugar brand, they’re definitely baking a whole lot more.

Overall, 2020 CPG trends suggest the importance of trust based brands, workout gear to satisfy the explosive population of virtual workers, and similarly all products that feather nests and nesters.

But as all brands are wont to do, CPGs are overly focused on riding the wave, dancing with the virus that brought ‘em, tweaking away, but in no way considering a fundamental shift in how they go to market that would sustain them through the droughts as well as set them up for greater exponential growth under any market circumstances. This is not about the goods themselves, but more about market attack, the need for a bolder posture, and what Malcom Gladwell refers to as “pulling the goalie” earlier than conventional wisdom would suggest. Yeah, not a lot of conventional legends around.

As Tom Peters said, “If it ain’t broke, break it and fix it anyway.” And that means CPGs starting to move faster, lighter, more aggressively, even straight up retail-minded, embracing a specific set of truths.

THERE’S THE QUICK, AND THERE’S THE DEAD. PERIOD.

The term moving at the speed of retail speaks to responsiveness. So when a competitor hits the market with a stronger offer eight days before Labor Day, the speed at which you can field an even stronger offer in market, or any type of counter offer, is what defines retail success. This type of agility either remains lost on CPGs or minimally left only to the real-time activations of organic social from a deployment standpoint. Yet, McKinsey reports that agile business units are 1.5 times more likely to outperform on both financial and nonfinancial performance metrics. From a CPG marketing perspective, this primarily means leaner and more efficient communications between deployment channels, not just barrier-breaking internal communications. If you cannot get your key marketing partners on the phone within ten minutes on a Saturday, you’ve either got too many of ‘em or the ones you have forgotten that Amazon is open 24/7.

DON’T LEAVE SELECTION ON THE SHELF

Unless it says Ragu on a shopping list, then Newman’s and Classico and Prego are all poised to get picked… just because. The fact is, Interbrand points out that 74% of all in-store decisions are made within 3 feet of the product. So yeah, when someone has “sauce” on their shopping list, a label’s stopping power and preferred placement drives the decision, not your marketing. But when you can activate promotions with teeth and realize the shortest line leads from marketing to the to-do/shopping list, then you’re driving intent, not indecision. Read your Sun Tzu: “Every battle is one or lost before the first shot is fired.” Thinking like a retailer in this case means driving the differentiation that makes the sale before the shop. Which brings us to…

GO HAM ON DIFFERENTIATION

This is not new news, which might be the issue: There’s just not enough blood flowing to differentiation, and instead marginal CPG marketing that drives marginal gains. Of course, there are three ways to differentiate. (1) Make it cheaper. But don’t go there (unless you’re selling Kirkland toilet paper). You can get beat on price on any given day no matter what you do, so you need to give the consumer a better reason to buy than price. (2) Make it better. If you’ve got a proof point, real and quantitative that transcends brag and boast, sure. (3) Make it different. Does a CBD infused beverage constitute differentiation if 20 beverage brands are making the same claim? Today, there are multiple erasable pens, dozens of athletic shoes that weigh less than seven ounces and Walmart’s Onn 4K TVs that deliver the same number of pixels as the LG. What’s the difference?

You need to figure out which attribute or what brand cues will pop, wow, and stand apart. Meaning don’t just have a special sauce, own it, and own the volume of the message by mixing a cocktail of paid owned and earned media with the humility to understand that a 15 year-old on TikTok is capable of winning far more hearts and minds for the cost of exactly zero. Which means you need to be thoroughly uncompromising and more innovative with your creative advertising and activations. Force your marketing partners to earn their keep by delivering ideas that are nothing short of breakthrough. Or find a new marketing partner.

BREAK FROM BONDAGE

Are Amazon and Walmart and Target, et al. necessary evils? Critical channel partners? Co-Op dollar contributors? More powerful than Thanos? Yes, yes, yes and yes. But at the same time, they ultimately limit not just our potential for DTC (direct-to-consumer) sales, they undermine our data collection, ability to control our brand, and cost us margin for the privilege. Drop Amazon? No. Opt out of Walmart Media? No. But if you’re not trying to figure out how to launch at least some sort of DTC vertical, then a migration plan must be front and center. (P&G’s new DTC unit just doubled their sales in a year). So break the chains, seize control, and start fronting DTC sales with an uncompromising eye to long-term channel growth.

ABOVE ALL, INTEGRATION

Whether you’re benefiting from the cost and time efficiencies of a few/or one integrated marketing partner, or you’re managing a stable of specialty firms, less is more. When disparate entities are not seamlessly sharing metrics, misses and hits, you’re leaving way too much market share on the table. A breakthrough influencer strategy might be able to be surgically applied to a POS application. A viral organic social post could be the key to turbo charging an Amazon Media application. OLV may inform a better keyword strategy. It’s about putting content to work across all your distribution channels and turning integration from a watchword to a driving go-to-market strategy. But it ain’t happening without integration.

Urgency, putting the decision at the top of the funnel, differentiating like your stakeholders’ lives depended on it, taking control of DTC, and ensuring that winning content in one channel drives results in multiple channels. This must be the new CPG mentality: Immune to success-fueled complacence, leveraging the best cues not just from proven peer products, but by TikTok players, retailers, and all those who utilize less dollars to drive greater results with urgency.

Ultimately, not all market corrections go your way. That’s the hyper-speed reality check you simply can’t ignore.

WHEN ANALYSTS GO APE

There’s a bit of madness in retail marketers’ chase for numerical fortification: A desire to build arguments as impenetrable as Kevlar and as logical as an anal retentive Vulcan. This breakneck chase for certainly presumes that with an infinite data set, sharper algorithms, and predicative analytics, we can totally crack consumer behavior and drive retail KPIs with zero marketing slippage. Ha!

Here’s something else that’s true… given an infinite amount of time, a monkey will actually type Hamlet.

So here are what monkeys and data scientists have in common: They’re both theoretically right, but getting it all the way wrong.

The fact is, beyond available data, beyond the 20 petabytes of data Google crunches each day, or Amazon’s 1B gig algorithm model, the way consumers not just think, but feel about an experience, whether on their phone or on the shelf in front of them, can defy measurement.

Consider that sales data might easily tell you that 26% of sauce buyers choose Ragu, 21% choose Prego, 15% choose Newman’s Own, 12% choose Bertolli, and 26% choose other. But shopping lists don’t name actual brands, they just say sauce and 74% of consumers make their decisions within 3 feet of the shelf.  Doesn’t this mean we can modify behavior at the moment of truth in away that defies data? Doesn’t the very act of great/strong/bold and memorable advertising stand to “change the math” in a way that drives trend busting buyer intent?  And ultimately, aren’t we always forgetting that any data set solely reflects what was, not what could be?

Respectfully, it is true that with enough data and planning, retailers can focus on the wide side of the barn, as it were, knowing that the eccentricities of some consumers will indeed mean slippage in the form of a few wildlings whose behavior flies in the face of the even predicative analytics. The masses though will follow the predicative analytics model and in theory the retailer wins. But there’s a chasm between winning incrementally and winning big and the later comes not just when the data says “this will work”, but when the surprise and delight of the offering galvanizes the consumer in a way that perhaps we didn’t see coming, yet we were able to goose with intention. From breakthrough people (TV’s stars like Joy of Painting’s Bob Ross or Donald Trump) to breakthrough retail (silly bands or slime), phenomenons happen outside the realm of the calculable. In the case of slime alone, sleepy Elmer’s glue was purchased by Newell brands in 2015 for $600M after decades of flat sales. A single, slimy quarter later, they were up 9% on the kind of trend spike that would have caught Nostradamus asleep at the wheel #ohthatslime. Similar surprising spikes where seen at Amazon challenged Office Depot and Staples.

What is v. what could be… that is indeed the crux of it. What is, like data that says iPhone users purchase more black phones than silver phones, and that if presented with an orange version would likely pass. Except what happens when “what could be” is merchandising for an orange phone that is truly compelling or priced to move? (Quick, the monkeys need more data on price points and merchandising).

Amazon’s legendary algorithms know that someone who loves the movie Bohemian Rhapsody would likely respond if they were served an interstitial for a Muse greatest hits download. But are algorithms factoring in the decay rate of burnout on a movie typically viewed more than once and today is the number one choice of airline travelers watching in-flight movies? (Monkeys now need in-flight ethnographies).

Then think about true meaning of retail surprise and delight, which remains the quintessentially underused retail weapon, and often where what is and what could be pass like ships in the night. Conventional analytics would suggest that inflatable floats belong in the pool department. Yet imagine Joe and Jane shopper at a mega box like Sam’s Club: They’re picking up some basic household commodities, when suddenly they turn a corner and come face to a ginormous inflatable pink flamingo large enough hold 6 people. It’s huge, it’s shocking, and the fact that it almost makes no sense where it’s placed in the store makes it even more compelling. Analysts don’t respond well with things that make no sense. But consumers do. They smile. They’re engaged. The entire Sam’s Club Brand is elevated beyond commodity and membership and into the realm of fun “destination brand.”

Chinese proverb say “when men speak of the future, the Gods laugh.” I get the feeling the biggest yucks are reserved for analysts who don’t just speak, but lean on data the way a drunk leans on a light post… not for illumination, but for support. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of data and predictive analytics alike. We’ve built retail empires with both. Moreover, I feel a whole lot better when my big idea bets are hedged with data. But if you’re not also considering X factors, the improbably and profitable unknowns, then you’re just monkeying around.

DELIVER US FROM SAMENESS

I want my MTV” A single, clear, four-word mantra was all it took. Suddenly, MTV had forced reluctant cable service providers to include MTV in their line-ups through a consumer pull-through strategy. Fact is, consumers were already demanding more cable content, no different than hungry and busy families are demanding more food delivery options, but their demand trigger just hadn’t been activated. So the question is, which food delivery service will most effectively pull through consumer demand? Who, of the big three – Door Dash, Grub Hub, and UberEats – will grab enough share to make it a two-horse race?

While I’m sure all three are heads down on UX, certainly critical, what else are these guys missing? What are some lessons they should be considering?

SHOW ME THE MONEY:  For starters, with $850B in play, restaurant brands will continue to strive for an anytime, anyhow, omnipresent offerings from their own apps, drive-through, walk-in, kiosks, et.al., with the singular goal of creating a frictionless distribution platform. How does a 3PO get a restaurant leaning their way? Consider the CARFAX re-brand launch built around the “Show me the CARFAX” campaign. CARFAX specifically added the line “only at reputable dealers everywhere” in all consumer-facing communications. This strategy not only forced the dealer’s hand in opting into CARFAX lest they be considered disreputable, it lured dealers into aligning with the one brand that more closely tied to their aspirational values. The lesson? Preferred partner > vendor. That’s where your strategy should start.

DON’T FOLLOW THE CHEESY LEADER: Yes, you can own a big slice of a $35B delivery empire and still get it wrong. Meaning just because pizza delivery is the category bedrock doesn’t mean they cracked the code on strategic innovation that creates meaningful consumer interaction. And in fact, the actual delivery of the product is typically underwhelming. Irony abounds as pizza is indeed defined by consumers breaking the rules… more napkins, eating around the TV, kids answering the door, the unmistakable box that telegraphs the food unlike a million and one generic bags. Yet, can you actually think of a single meaningful interaction with a pizza delivery brand? For the record, this isn’t a call for food delivery brands to hire professional entertainers as drivers and bikers. But still, where is the win here? When does the consumer actually scream “Door Dash!” when the bell rings instead of the name of the food brand? The lesson? Remember that UX isn’t just what happens on an app: At some point, your brand is face to face.

LET CONSUMERS SING YOUR PRAISES: The MTV example is a good example of where to place your bets. 3POs have plenty of places to churn cash: Tech, inside sales, affiliate programs, consumer branding and marketing and more. But in the same way a single social post, or a consumer movement (as engineered by MTV) can drive a tidal wave of consumer love and allegiance, you’ve got to understand how to optimize your marketing spend so that every marketing dollar invested comes back as a ten. The lesson? Nothing’s unimportant, but the biggest bang for the buck is when activating the consumer is at once engineered and organic.

IGNORE THE USER:If I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me to build them a faster horse”, or so said Henry Ford. Consider that the consumer cannot imagine what the Grub Hub app might offer that constitutes true surprise and delight. Think about blue ocean theory: What is the category given that you can heretically eliminate for the greater win, no different than Southwest eliminating reserved seats or a circus (Cirque Du Soleil) eliminating clowns. Conversely, what is the attribute or feature that nobody sees coming, the at once disruptive and joyous element that changes the category math? Desktop printing from Cannon. McDonald’s adding McCafe. Ralph Lauren creating Polo, Cemex turning cement into an emotional purchase, and more. The lesson? Ensure that non-linear invention is core, not fringe.

GET OUT OF THE DELIVERY BUSINESS: Short and sweet, you need to answer the proverbial “what business are you in” question. Domino’s decided it was in the technology business. Disney is in the magic business. Fannie Mae’s in the American Dream business. The term 3PO ain’t that friendly so re-define what business you’re in: Food delivery is what you do, not what you stand for, and the only people who make money work at the US Mint. The lesson? Elevate.

While these lessons are merely the tip of the idea iceberg, the challenge is to stop navigating by category norms. Your agenda must be about invention, elevation, speaking for the consumer, not just to the consumer, seeing UX as analog, not just digital, and earning restaurant preference. The brand that hits it won’t just steal share today, but feast on increasing consumer demand that’s only now kicking into gear.

You just gotta deliver.

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE WE GO. Will The Up Fronts Ever Be The Same?

In the very time it takes to read this post, Amazon would have exceeded forecasts, Walmart would have countered with an acquisition or low cost delivery option, and between them, a trillion dollars of revenue would be hung up in Seattle and Bentonville. In fact, everything they do today, every move they make, is just a stark reminder that if it ain’t digital, it ain’t gettin’ funded.

The vitality and critical nature of digital (v. traditional) media cannot be overstated. Moreover, every single day, traditional agencies and lagging media shops are finding out that plans not dominated by search and lower funnel customer acquisition are about as relevant as Myspace. Conversely, top down media, typically found on plans defined by proverbial carpet bombing and heavy TV up fronts, becomes more and more marginalized as the holy grail of 1:1 marketing moves across the land like a locust storm.

Sure, the networks will trot out the stars for their New York up fronts this month. And sure, the price of a 30-second Super Bowl spot (Q1/C1/S1) will be up 5%, but advertisers take caution. As we strive for hyper targeted connections, with the promise of true 1:1 marketing that delivers the ripest fruit at the bottom of the tree, what about critical mass? How do we calculate the lost potential to move fringe buyers? Doesn’t an idea virus need more than a single host to thrive? And don’t brands, this second and more than ever, need to be inclusive?

You need to be idea-driven but consumer-guided. And media planning is no different than brand planning in this regard… double digit KPIs are the product of mass coercion fueled by subtle seduction, not a few sure things. And doesn’t that take a more acute understanding of how people behave and why they do what they do.

A funnel is designed to come to a point, but the real point is this: As you go down the media rabbit hole, the question shouldn’t just be what are we gaining, but what are we leaving behind?

RETAIL’S SOS MOMENT

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The irony is at once incredible and sad, really. With more data, big data, analytics, and data scientists at their beck and call, more brands simply do not understand their place in the world anymore. And while in many ways they are proverbial ships that are faster and more efficient than ever, they remain lost at sea.

The map tells them that there’s fiercer competition than ever before. In-category competition. Big Box. Ecommerce players. Other infringers from private labels to cases where their very own suppliers are taking their products directly to consumers. On top of those, there’s always the next category Uber waiting in the wings, the “why didn’t we think of that?” competitor that once again sends category stalwarts reeling.

There’s no shortage of solution dogma: Consultants and agencies push for brand purpose, north stars, mission statements, architectures, vision statements, essences, and the like. Or data analysts who know how to crunch and regurgitate but haven’t a clue about how to convert insights into actionable go-to-market strategies. And so brands try to execute too much, lean too heavily on brand or retail, drown in data, and end up trying to be too many things to too many people, or focusing solely on the race for the bottom, i.e. cheaper than the field. 

But think about the outliers who continue to crush it. Brands whose market attack has evolved to embrace every inch of the funnel, but who remain built on a brand foundation that’s diamond bright and durable.

Think about BMW pruning away everything but this promise: The Ultimate Driving Machine. When you think about the complexity of the category, the multitude of models and the endless RTBs that BMW could tout, mull over the discipline needed to hold to one bold idea that everyone from an accounts payable clerk in Munich can recite as effortlessly as a dealer in Oshkosh. It’s a vision that doesn’t preclude new news or special deals or sales.

Or Five Guys, for whom a simple chicken patty represents brand heresy. It’s all burgers, fries, and shakes. Full stop. Or Southwest, whose data tells them that 50% of their customers would prefer reserved seats, but who know that the 50% of those who love them for who they are mean so much more. Or Ritz Carlton as defined by evergreen benefit of ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen. Like it or not, they live by it. And, not for nothing, enough people like it to make it the number one luxury hotel chain the world.

To the brands that struggle with their value propositions, and who in spite of having more tools, more lower funnel opportunities, and more data than ever before still battle themselves to leverage information and find a winning lane, fear not: This is not about building construct castles in the sky. It’s about elegant simplicity, data informed but deconstruction based, focusing on numerators (what the consumer gets), not just denominators (at what cost). Bring in fresh right brains to debate. Fight conventional wisdom and summon the courage of a lion. And if you remember these six little words… To Thy Own Brand Be True, the sea will be yours.

@cliffcourtney

REVENUE IS SERVED

shutterstock_111663155 (1)It always, ALWAYS, comes down to three ingredients: Marketing, Ops, and People. The category’s definitive three-legged stool.

Marketing’s responsibility has never been more complex or carried a heavier load. The competition is unrelenting and communication channels insanely diverse. And yet if you’re not driving traffic, you’re dead. Period.

People: Ray Kroc’s famous quote says it all: “We’re not a hamburger business serving people, we’re a people business serving hamburgers.” Forget about brand ambassadors, your associates can lift you or kill you on belief and basic services cues all day long. No more lip service, you need to get this right.

Ops: While bad marketing can damage you, and a lethargic workforce can undermine loyalty, we all know that at the end of the day bad ops is the surest and fastest way to bury you.

While all three ultimately affect revenue, i.e. cash flow, i.e. silver bullet, i.e. the holy grail, no team has more pressure on them to drive revenue than marketing. When there’s too much focus on brand, there’s no sense of urgency. It’s all “why here,” but no “why now.” But when there’s too much focus on offers, buying visits as it were, you’re trapped in the band-aid business… an endless series of one offs that are pervious to fluctuating market conditions and budget decreases.

Restaurant brands need pitch perfect value propositions, delivered with both brand and retail sensibility a.k.a. Brandtailing®. A single platform that allows for more focused messaging, media and production efficiency.

No, the best marketing in the world doesn’t clean tables or smile when the customer walks in. But one fact remains unassailable… success breeds success, and when the traffic flows, associates stand to prosper more, and service energy lifts the experiential tide.

So buckle up marketers. You need to innovate, keep moving, stay paranoid and not fall prey to white line fever. Instead of consulting with people around the table, find players who will win on the field. You don’t need an ad agency, you need fighters. Those that are in relentless pursuit of their clients’ goals. Relentless. Pursuit.

DATA’S 7 DEADLY SINS

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While not quite as egregious as sloth perhaps, marketers are selling their MBA souls for numerical support, lest their gut be their downfall. And so data, and especially big data, is the new silver bullet. But whether silver, copper, gold or brass, a bullet is not the only weapon in the marketers’ arsenal. And a bullet not aimed properly can do more damage than good. Even the silver bullets are often best never fired.

Yet asked which is more important, gut or instinct, the most recent survey results say that 87% go with data. Plain sinful, here’s why:

DATA DOESN’T GIVE YOU ANSWERS: What data gives you are clues. For instance, 76% of shoppers turn right upon entering a store. But that’s not an answer. It doesn’t tell you whether to put the high margin goods on the right, negating half your store, or the left, to increase your volume, to go with a center aisle, or to create a Kohl’s-like track. The fact is that you need four more data points (clues) to piece the story together. When using data, it’s a sin not to use multiple clues to tell a story.

DATA LIES: 14% of people will admit they searched for a photo of Caitlyn Jenner last month, but Google knows that number is really higher than 22%. Store traffic counters will tell you that Old Navy had 1,000 people cross the lease line yesterday. But isn’t that 300 shoppers plus 600 reluctant kids? When using data, it’s a sin not to question the gospel.

DATA REVEALS, BUT DATA CONCEALS: Chicago Bears quarterback, Jay Cutler, averaged 254 yards per game last season, only 3 less than Super Bowl winner, Tom Brady, and 37 more than the previous Super Bowl winning QB and this year’s runner up, Russell Wilson. What’s hidden? Jay Cutler led the league with 18 interceptions, more than Brady and Russell combined. The famous “Got Milk” campaign came to life when intuitive researchers realized that even when a low number of people admitted they drank milk, almost all of them really did, i.e. coffee and cereal, i.e. hidden data. Marketers get myopic about KPIs, but KPIs don’t live in a bubble. It’s a sin not to be a lot more Sherlock and a little less Watson in your approach to data.

PARALYSIS BY ANALYSIS RUNS AMOK: Amazon scraps 90% of its pilots and projects. But it sure doesn’t stop them from trying. Lots of smart people, with lots of smart data, is always the fastest way to fight inertia. In 2007, the music industry hesitated on YouTube sensation Justin Bieber, allowing wunderkind, Scooter Braun to swoop in and sign him without a second of pause. Ironically, in 2011, Scooter, now only 34 but worth $50M, hesitated himself in signing K-Pop sensation, Psy who blew by Bieber to become the number one YouTube star ever with 2.3B views for his Gangnam Style video. It’s a sin not to remember that done is better than perfect.

MARKETING > DATA: In 1983, when he was a sprite 64, then unknown Sidney Frank decided to import Jägermeister into the US. Every bit of data suggested it would swiftly fail. The world wanted vodka, not brown liquids. Sex In The City had set the tone and for college kids it was tequila or dark beer. But Sidney designed the Jagerettes (shot girls) and created a college phenomenon and national Gen-X love for the so-called “liquid Valium.” Then, at 78 years old, when Absolut ruled the vodka category and the data said $17 was the ceiling per bottle, Sidney boldly doubled it and invented Grey Goose with a simple value proposition: Super-premium means made in France (by artisans) not Russia (potato farmers); shipped in wood crates like fine wine, not in cardboard containers like cheap rot gut. Sidney sold Grey Goose to Bacardi seven years later for $2 billion. In cash. Hello. Hundreds of stories like Sidney’s all point to the irrefutable fact that it’s a sin not to believe in the power of marketing to fly smack into the face of data.

INSIGHT > INFORMATION: Even big data, and especially big data, delivers thin data: She has blonde hair, three kids, and drinks pinot noir. But that’s all based on correlation, not causality. Big data doesn’t know what people feel and people are feeling irrational more often than not. Less and less they fit into a data bucket that is one of the reasons traditional segmentation is failing to help brands focus. A recent Accenture report revealed that only 20% of companies had a link between “what they measure and the outcomes they are intending to drive.” It’s a sin to drown in data and starve for insight.

WE HAVE A SUPER COMPUTER ON US AT ALL TIMES: The human brain is the most sophisticated cruncher of data. It can process, assimilate, re-program itself on the fly, learn what’s important faster than artificial intelligence, and factor in the human condition, i.e. emotional intelligence. The problem is, when it comes to data most people just use half of their brains, the left half, analytical, linear, rational. Imaging the right use for data, ideas for activating data… that’s right brain all day long. It’s a sin not to use both our right and leftbrains in processing information.

Here’s the deal. Whether you’re crunching 20 gazillion bytes of data a day, i.e. 20 petabytes as Google processes, or a single byte (equivalent to one character of data), breakthrough ideas in merchandising, operations and marketing are generated through insights that can’t always be quantified or come from that part of your head called your gut. The sum of your wisdom, your experience, and intuition and yes, data clues that tell a story… that’s the way to win and win big. Anything else is just… sinful.

SUDDENLY RED FRIDAY: WHY RETAILERS ARE ADDICTED TO THE WRONG DAY.

blackfridaypicYou would think that 51 Fridays in the red and one in the black isn’t the kind of “high” a retailer could get behind. Yet sacrificing margin for volume and getting myopic about shopper frenzy, most retailers once again placed all their bets on black last week because… hey, isn’t it the busiest shopping day of the year?

Actually, no, that would be the Saturday before Christmas, a day most notably without a clever nom de plume. (Syringe Saturday?)

Retail got greedy these past two years. They turned a single Friday into an entire season with less clarity, offering Black Friday sales as early as October. They flat out never closed their stores and took workers away from their families on Thanksgiving. They came up with a one off – Cyber Monday. And generally sucked the life out of their biggest single day event, diminishing its unique allure and undermining its potential.

Accordingly, since Sunday the retail pundits have spent every waking second shoveling dirt on Black Friday as if it OD’ed before the weekend was over. The NRF reported a 3.6% drop in consumers from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday with spending off by an estimated 11%. Market Watch pointed to retailers “tired of seeing their brands devalued”. And as a true harbinger of doom, following the release of the numbers, (especially the NRF numbers) it was reported that shares of 31 companies in the S&P 500 retailing index fell, with only Family Dollar posting a gain. Black Friday, DOA.

While brands like Walmart, Amazon, Apple, EA and American Eagle were among retailers who indeed had incremental gains last weekend, the problem is that most brands just ended up treading water only to leave today and 50 other Fridays as second thoughts. And in retail, every day is judgment day. Every Friday, when there’s far less noise, far less distractions, far less competition and far less loss leader mentality.

Healthy retailers don’t focus on Black Friday any more than today, Back to School, Labor Day, or their own event: They don’t “wait and see”, and instead they have a sense of retail urgency that in the end is holiday agnostic.

One of our very own retail partners earned a +16% on for a weekend event in a wholly commoditized category. Another saw single day +95% traffic lift (not a typo). Another had ROMI blossom to 28:1 this year. One earned +43% comp. Another in the most competitive industry on the planet saw a YTD market share shift of nearly +8% and +12% sales through a series of Friday-based events. All of these brands, in spite of long odds, in spite of being outspent, in many cases in spite of smaller footprints and NOT on Black Friday.

Retailers need to break the habit, plan early, collect data, and utilize speed to market, buying media fast and flexibly. With the right marketing partner by their side, they can string together a lot more than one win in November. And instead of a temporary rush, we’re talking about the sustained higher traffic and comp that a brand can live with 52 Fridays in a row. That’s an addiction nobody wants to kick.

URBAN OUTFITTERS MISS THE TARGET AND STRIKE A NERVE.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 9.04.24 AMWhen a brand uses a marketing tactic so salacious, so outrageous, that the first thing you ask your self is “am I missing something”, you know that brand has pushed the boundaries too far.

And so, today, Philadelphia’s Urban Outfitters is forced to apologize and defend itself in the face of an egregious miscalculation. Consider that no sooner did the press get a hold of their pre-blooded “Vintage” Kent State Sweatshirt story that Urban Outfitters was forced to post an apology

Not just a social post screw up on the spur of the moment, this was a planned merchandising decision that likely included a dozen or more people weighing in… is there something toxic in the vending machines at UO’s corporate HQ?

And yet, Urban Outfitters just compounded the problem by stating that the shirt’s faux blood stains were unintentional: “The red stains are discoloration from the original shade of the shirt” was their official language. An explanation that truly makes them sound even more tone deaf to the cause and effect of their own merchandising and marketing, or just plain dishonest.

Ugly, ugly stuff.

Will Urban Outfitters face any long-term fall fall out? Will their core audience be miffed at the fuss, unaware about Ohio’s National Guard firing 67 rounds in 13 seconds which killed four Kent State students and injured nine more in one of America’s most ignominious incidents? I hope not.

There are marketing goofs. There a marketing fails. And then there is this. Something beyond. Something worse. Something that will bring a world of criticism right to Urban Outfitter’s door.

Not sure this one will go away without some serious restitution. But given the collective “intelligence” that went into making this decision, the marketing blood is squarely on their hands.

BEHOLD THE ROI OF THE POWER CHORD.

So just because there are plenty of guys out there who know who Buckethead is and who define street cred as the ability to master sweep arpeggios, is that enough to keep a business like Guitar Center strumming along in cash?

No. But that shouldn’t stop them.

For musicians, a brick and mortar music store is a veritable candy shop. The colors, cuts, amps, hollow bodies, MIDIs and snare drums… it’s all an overwhelming onslaught of “I want that.” But today, music is digital. It’s as much about turntables as it is Stratocasters. Daft Punk cleaned up at the last Grammys and those guys don’t put their fingers on much Brazilian rosewood fretboards or Marshall amplifiers. And yes, you can buy the first production electric guitar, the Les Paul, on Amazon. Easy-peasy.

But Guitar Center has a secret weapon that a million and one Amazons will never have. Something beyond materials and commodities. Something beyond even an upgraded omni-channel shopping experience. What Guitar Center can do, and in many ways ONLY Guitar Center can do, is market the potential of making music, whether through analog or digital means, in the same way that Apple seized control of the pure joy of listening to music.

From sports to the arts, from psychologists to sociologists, there remains a universal understanding that doing is better than watching. That participating is more gratifying than cheering from the sidelines. That a beat you lay down yourself can affect the masses. And that an iPod is but a toy compared to the bounty found at a Guitar Center.

Ultimately, the world is drawn to authentic brands. Brands that leverage a sense of originality, purity, tradition or genuineness. And Guitar Center has those in spades.

Whether through mobile, online or at their more than 250 locations, consumers need Guitar Center in their lives, perhaps a bit more than they know today. But as more people make music, and more shareholders see their ROI, everyone will be singing a happy tune.