The Big Opportunity with Virtual Reality

Virtual reality (VR) is being touted as the next big thing and venture capital firms are falling over themselves to give money to companies experimenting with the technology. There is also growing interest in mixed reality (MR), which is an augmented version that lets you use the real world as the backdrop to navigate VR objects placed within it. The MR experience is considered more real and believable, compared to VR, as the latter happens in a world that is entirely make believe. Here is a great Wired article on VR and MR which spurred my thinking and brought about this blog.

Turns out that VR technology has been around since the 1990’s but it was cost-prohibitive to mass produce. With the proliferation of smartphones, which have brought down the cost of sensors and created super computers that fit in our pocket, VR is finally ready to come of age.

It would be fair to say that Oculus Rift marked the turning point that resulted in VR going mainstream. Oculus started in 2012 as a Kickstarter project to build a VR gaming headset and quickly became a household name. In 2014 they were bought by Facebook for $2 billion. Since that moment there has been something akin to frenzy among the top tech companies to get into VR. Microsoft recently started shipping its HoloLens to developers (Source: Verge article). Verizon’s AOL bought a 360-degree VR video company called RYOT (Source: Wall Street Journal article). HTC, Google, Sony, Samsung, Apple and a host of other companies have launched VR products or are in the process of developing them.

However, all these companies are currently thinking about VR only through a lens of gaming and commercial applications like movies, tourism and for various new ways to market their products and services. It is great for companies to invest in innovation to find better and more effective ways to sell us ‘stuff’ but I believe that focusing entirely on the commercial aspects would be missing a much greater opportunity.

Here is the line in the article that sparked my thinking:
“People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”(Source: Wired article).

In my mind, the greatest flaw we have as human beings is the inability to see through someone else’s eyes and, therefore, to empathise with them in a truly meaningful way. It is almost as if we are conditioned to personally experience a situation before we can fully appreciate and understand it on a deeper level. This is why it is often hard for us to truly empathise with people and situations that we have never experienced.

For example, most people get involved or start donating to Alzheimer’s and cancer research only after they have lost someone close or witnessed the disease first hand. Similarly people born rich are unable to appreciate the daily hardships and obstacles faced by families that live paycheque to paycheque, and simply view them as lazy or less hardworking.

Most people cannot fathom the daily experience of people of colour and the toll racism takes on a person’s self-confidence and self-belief. It is also very hard for any of us to imagine the emotional scarring that occurs, often for life, on victims of abuse. When there are no overt physical manifestations and scars, people struggle to feel a depth of compassion that might lead to action or a change in behaviour.

Now, let’s go back to the statement from the article; “People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them.”

Now, imagine if we could develop VR and MR tools that will allow Presidents to walk virtual battlefields, before making the decision to go to war. I guarantee that they would not make it as lightly as they do today. Imagine if convicted murderers could see the hell they leave behind for victim’s families. What if skeptical lawmakers could live through the eyes of refugees fleeing war-torn countries? And college freshmen were able to witness the damage they do with a drunken but forced hook-up (not the actual act of rape but the aftermath). Imagine if Donald Trump could spend a day as a Muslim woman.

Think of it as an education tool to help us make better life choices and wiser decisions by building greater empathy, not as a brainwashing tool. I believe there is a greater potential for VR, and especially MR, that goes beyond experiences designed to create entertainment, one that could truly help us become more humane, compassionate and wise.

CEO’s of companies like Facebook and Google love to talk about their altruism. They want to give back to society by solving some of the biggest problems using technology. But because their motives are driven by profit (which allows them to fund these initiatives) we tend to end up with flawed initiatives like Facebook’s Free Basics.

So instead of Mark Zuckerberg and Sergei Brin playing God by holding onto innovations and breakthroughs in VR, to develop a narrow set of products that suits their commercial purposes (which they should still do), why not also open source all the research and code and allow the world to build off it and find many more commercial, altruistic and innovative uses for this technology.

Seeing life through someone else’s eyes is unequivocally the greatest power and gift we can give mankind and who knows, it might be the one thing that can help save us from ourselves.

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HBO Go or No Go?

HBO’s announcement about launching a streaming only version of their popular service has been received with great joy and serious apprehension depending on which side of the fence you sit. For many years now consumers, specifically people who have cut the cable cord (cord cutters) have been clamoring for services like HBO and ESPN to go rogue. Cord cutters have said that they are willing to pay a monthly fee for these premium services if they were stand-alone and not part of a cable bundle; one that includes hundreds of channels nobody wants to watch. So for cord cutters and consumers like me, who currently live in both worlds, this is a big win and giant step in the right direction towards a la carte programming.

However, on the other side of the fence sit the cable and broadband companies who have balked at HBO’s move because it will disrupt their lucrative and outdated business models and threaten the uncomfortable status quo. Incidentally, the business model the cable companies are trying to protect is akin to going to a restaurant and being told that in order to eat your favourite desert you will have to order, and pay for, all the deserts on the menu – I doubt you would be eating there again! Comcast’s CEO recently publicly rebuked the HBO announcement; “Mr. Burke warned that, whatever HBO’s intentions, ‘it’s going to be a challenge for them to not cannibalize what is already a really, really good business’.” (Source: Wall Street Journal). It is worth noting that if Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable gets approved by regulators, they would control 70% of the broadband market; and interestingly HBO will need to rely on broadband providers like them for the high speeds and massive bandwidths they will need for this gamble to succeed.

The reality is that when most established and entrenched companies make proclamations about changing their business model or radically disrupting the status quo, it is often a knee-jerk reaction to competitive pressures and therefore rarely ever thought through. Take for example CBS’s announcement, on the heels of HBO’s, about launching their own streaming service for $5.99 per month. CBS like other broadcast networks is free-to-air. This means that unlike cable channels all you need is to buy is an over-the-air-antenna and plug it into your TV and you can watch all the networks, as well as numerous local channels and public broadcasting stations like PBS; all in HD and all for free (Source: Lifehacker).

CBS also makes a lot of money by negotiating hefty “re-transmission” fees from cable providers, which form part of our monthly monster cable bills. So the first question is why would the cable companies continue to pay these hefty fees when CBS is making the same content available through other means? Additionally, from a customer standpoint, live sports like NFL games are not included in the streaming service. Let’s face it, CBS hardly has a reputation for stellar and premium content that people are willing to pay extra for; not sure many people are doing high fives about the fact that “Two Broke Girls” will be available to watch via streaming. Also, if I want to watch the first six seasons of the Good Wife, I can do this for free as an Amazon Prime member, or see them on HuluPlus under my current subscription (where I can watch many other shows), or simply download 2 seasons at a time from iTunes for roughly $65-$70; which is still cheaper than paying for one year of CBS’s ‘All Access’ streaming service  — you do the math.

HBO on the other hand is not like a CBS (other than the misfortune of having Time Warner as it’s parent company). It has always been an entrepreneurial company with innovation as part of its core DNA. It single-handedly changed the television industry; lifting the quality of content and thus saving us all from a TV-hell filled with nothing but the Kardashians. However, the quality of content that forged HBO’s brand reputation also forced the rest of the industry to raise its game, and many have followed-suit by creating their own original and award winning programming. AMC has had huge ratings and critical success with “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad” and “Walking Dead,” while Showtime has given us “Dexter”, “Nurse Jackie” and “Weeds”. Even Netflix has gotten into the content game with “House of Card” and is now stepping fearlessly into the feature film business with a recent four movie deal with Adam Sandler (Read my take here: “Netflix, Data, Drunkard’s and Adam Sandler”).

So unlike CBS, I believe HBO is doing this for the right reasons and more likely to think it through and get it right, now that they have woken up to and accepted the new consumer realities. This I suspect also led to their decision to go ahead and piss on their powerful cable partners whom they did not care to inform ahead of making their announcement.

HBO knows that they can no longer distinguish themselves on quality of content alone. As a result they would be competing (with the likes of Netflix) with one hand tied behind their back as long they are relegated to being stuck as part of the traditional cable bundle.

Second, they have read and accepted the tea leaves on the changing pattern of television consumption. Online video has been growing for some years but the acceleration has been marked in the last year. An Adobe study shows that for the first time online video viewing habits are going mainstream and no longer relegated to tech savvy early adopters and cord cutters; “Researchers tracked 165 online video views and 1.53 billion logins over a year, and they found that total TV viewing over the internet grew by 388 percent in mid-2014 compared to the same time a year earlier — a near-quintupling.” (Source: Wired Magazine). This means that even people who have regular cable subscriptions are choosing to watch more of their TV and movies online via internet connected devices.

Most importantly, HBO is clearly paying attention to their customers changing viewing habits that have decimated the old Nielsen TV rating system. People no longer want to watch shows based on a Fixed Point Chart (industry jargon for the TV schedule published by a channel). Instead, they prefer to watch it a few days later or simply binge watch an entire show or season during a weekend or long haul flight.

While I do not have a crystal ball and cannot predict the success of HBO’s standalone service, I do know a couple of things. It is certain that they, like Netflix, will face tremendous opposition and hurdles from movie studios, cable operators and broadband providers; all interested in preserving their lucrative status quo. However, HBO will also have the wind in their sales based on the fact that customers are demanding a breakdown of the straight-jacketed cable model and getting more used to consuming content in an a la carte, anytime, anywhere, pay as you watch model.

My money is always on companies that try to deliver on their customers’ needs and focus on making life easier for them, rather than try to force customers down a path driven by the company’s myopic goals and bottom-line greed.

Netflix, Data, Drunkard’s and Adam Sandler

There has been much discussion about Netflix’ recent announcement signing Adam Sandler for an exclusive four movie deal to be premiered on Netflix. It has also generated talk of the beginning of the end of the traditional Hollywood studio model as well as praise for Netflix use of data to make a content investment decision; albeit, this particular decision has left many people scratching their heads.

Let’s start with the fact that it has been a while since Mr. Sandler made a commercially successful or comedically substantive film; while Grown Ups fared better, he did not carry that movie. If you ask people to name their favourite Adam Sandler movie, most say Wedding Singer and movie buffs will add Punch-Drunk Love. His last few films, ‘That’s My Boy’ and ‘Blended’ have been critically panned and box office duds. In fact, the last movie, Blended, might have had a longer advertising campaign preceding the release, than the actual run it had in theaters!

On the lack of critical and commercial success, Netflix’s content chief has a data counterpoint: “Very uniquely, he stands out for his global appeal to Netflix subscribers. Even movies that were soft in the U.S. [theatrically] outperformed dramatically on Netflix in the U.S. and around the world.” (Source: Hollywood Reporter).

Don’t get me wrong, I love data and am a big advocate for using it to make better and more informed business decisions. However, I am also against over-reliance on data and using it without the benefit of judgement to accompany the decision-making process. My thinking is best explained by David Ogilvy who once exclaimed about the ad industry’s over-reliance on research – “I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination.”

If one were to take a closer look at Netflix catalogue you will find that of the twelve highest rated comedy films, currently available in USA (as of October 2014); 2 are foreign (The Intoucahbles and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara), 8 were made between 1953 and 1987 (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, The Graduate, Charade, White Christmas, MASH and Good Morning Vietnam), only 2 are from this century – Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012).

Additionally, their top comedy recommendations for me include ‘Maz Jobrani: I come in Peace’, ‘Tortilla Soup’ and ‘Welcome to Dongmakgol’; each movie gets 4.5 / 5; stars as personalised recommendations for me. No doubt you are also scratching your head and asking “Max who?” and what the %$%^*$%* a Dongmakgol and can it be eaten?

Then there is also the fact that Netflix continues to have a large selection of Mr. Sandler’s movies in both the US and abroad; “We had almost all of Adam’s movies in the first pay window in the U.S. Today, we continue to have those movies in the first pay window in Canada. And then, through various windows that follow the pay window all the way to the deep catalog, we’ve licensed Adam’s movies in all of our territories.” (Source: Hollywood Reporter). Considering these two data points one could surmise that Netflix has a pretty poor selection of comedy films in their library but a wide selection of Mr. Sandler’s movies.

If you are like most people, who sign-up for a monthly subscription service, you only feel you are getting value for your money if you are able to watch movies frequently. You start by looking for recent comedy films, finding none you tend to default to one with a recognisable actor. On both these counts your Netflix search will deliver an abundance of Mr. Sandler’s titles because of the limitation of their current comedy catalogue. I have no doubt that their viewing data is accurate, and many subscribers are watching Mr. Sandler’s films, even repeatedly; but if I were to add a dose of judgement I would also guess that this is has less to do with his popularity or the quality of the films, and all to do with the fact that there is really nothing else worthwhile to watch…

Then there was also the bizarre press release issued by Mr. Sandler saying he signed this deal because “Netflix rhymed with wet chicks.” Hopefully, this is not an early indication of the substance of each of the $40 million a film that Netflix is reportedly paying him. (Source: Reuters).

While I laud Netflix use of data (House of Cards is a brilliant case in point) and for continually breaking ground in entertainment and forcing studios and TV networks to think in a more customer-centric manner; I am not sure I agree with their choice of Mr. Sandler. I wonder if this is an instance of using data for illumination, rather than support; but either way it will be interesting to see who has the last laugh.

Why Ron Johnson’s JC Penney Experiment Failed

Ron Johnson is credited with delivering two of the most successful retail models of this century as the man behind Target and Apple Stores. So what went wrong with JC Penney?

It seems that Johnson decided to ignore his own tenants and instead chose the path that many other corporate leaders seem to follow today – he simply changed the most superficial aspects of the JC Penney brand – the logo, colours, slogan and physical retail environment and delivered it via a shiny new ad campaign. He completely forgot to change the things that matter more and are responsible for delivering a successful brand experience; the company culture, internal and front-line employee’s buying into the vision and having the training and commitment to deliver on it. And I believe another thing he missed or underestimated, before rolling out his re-invention, was the core JCP customer appetite for the pace and extent of change.

Many corporations still believe that advertising and marketing can compensate for lack of a quality product or a great customer experience. It is a shortcut that will ALWAYS fail. This is an age old battle we in the advertising industry have fought with clients who do not want to spend the time or invest the money to build a truly great brand. They want quick, easy and cheap ways to a successful brand. There is not one. Advertising campaigns can only sell what already exists; they cannot create what does not. In fact, I would argue that you end up damaging your company and brand more by making promises that your product and customer experience do not deliver. In the end, customers are less likely to forgive or try you again. The man who at both Apple and Target was the antithesis to this fast and easy way seemed to succumb to external pressures with JC Penney and try to deliver a massive turn-around in a few quarters rather than over a period of years.

With every brand re-invention you have to start by answering two fundamental questions; what still works for the brand and should be carried forward, and second how far can you move forward without losing your most loyal customers; while ensuring you gain new ones. This is not about finding the best possible compromise but it is about ensuring that you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and lose your most valuable customers by creating something that is so alien to them, so unfamiliar that they no longer have an emotional connection with the brand. Also, you have to be cognizant of the fact that old brands have a long history and bring with them baggage, so you have to move them forward and update them in ways that do not allow you a totally clean slate, like Mr. Johnson had with Apple Stores. Perhaps, Mr. Johnson decided to try and re-invent this old brand like he had a clean slate, without understanding what worked and what his most loyal customers would not be willing to live without, at least in the short-term. As a result he alienated his most loyal customers before he had the time to attract a new customer.

Mr. Johnson should have spent his first year simply unveiling his vision with internal management and employees with an aim to start building support, passion and committed to delivering this vision to customers; while taking time to study JC Penney’s brand history and better understand their most valuable customers. All this much before any shiny new ads and re-designs hit TV channels and store shelves. One thing I will say in his defense is that Wall Street is responsible in large part for creating an environment of quarterly results mentality; where CEO’s are under tremendous pressure to deliver growth every few months. This is simply not the way you can ever build a successful company and brand. It takes time and years of investment and management commitment to create the likes of an Apple, Amazon, IBM or American Express. That said, there will always be external pressures and corporate leaders also need to push back (on Wall Street and investors) so they can take the time to bring all the stakeholders on board with their vision, before leading the way in executing it on far more realistic timelines.

It Will Last Forever…

Sadly, nothing lasts forever. However, this does not seem to stop so many successful companies from believing that their brands have become so powerful, so unique and so entrenched in the consumer psyche that their companies will never fade or die.

The “it will last forever” syndrome is mostly an affliction suffered by senior management that comes in the latter years of a company’s success. At a time when the company is often functioning as a near monopoly, or commanding a market beating price premium and enviable customer loyalty. From the outside it would look like this company is at the top of the world, and seemingly at the top of its game too. When long entrenched rivals seem unable to touch it and young, agile new competitors talk big but wither away quickly. This is usually when the management myopia sets in. When they bury their heads in the sand and repeatedly ignore the small but unmistakable warning signs of future decline.

Ignorance is bliss because what these managers never experienced was the many years their company’s spent putting the building blocks for success in place. Blocks built by taking big risks that helped them grow, get ahead and stay miles ahead of all their rivals. It was this hunger in the belly and the lessons learned from those many failures that helped develop its never say die attitude and unassailable competitive edge. The company mantra used to be all about innovation, R&D, thinking laterally, entering new markets. Often launching new products on nothing but a calculated hunch and a prayer; not about protecting their bottom-line to please Wall Street, every quarter.

These new managers end up doing nothing but looking inwards in the hopes of protecting their current market share, which in the end has exactly the opposite effect. They create shareholder value through cost-cutting and portfolio reduction; not by innovating or growing their product portfolios. If there is expansion then it is usually driven by buying up competitors and smaller companies, but all too often without any long-term strategic focus or goals. In the end, they simply end up depleting their companies’ once deep cash reserves. Sadly, fear of failure has driven the majority of their decisions, not hunger for success.

This is the reason so many great iconic brands (and hundred year old companies) are dying slow, painful and inevitable deaths today.

The Borders Tale

I wrote an earlier blog about innovation in today’s world (Innovate or Die…) and Borders is a great example of a company that lost its way due to their management’s fear of this word. Rather than adapt their core business offering to new modes of consumer delivery and consumption (and not changing their core offering), they buried their head in the sand and hoped the world would go back to its old ways.

I offer a link below to a great post-mortem on Borders, by Sean Duffy on TalentZoo.com:

Borders: A Brand Lesson Before Dying?

@AmericanExpress – Innovate or Die…not Quite!

Many companies feel overwhelmed by the need to constantly innovate, in an age where the next new and improved, ground breaking or revolutionary product seems to have become the norm. True innovation requires thinking out-of-the-box, taking risks and not being afraid to fail, often.

However, there are two things I tell clients; first, that the word innovation has taken on numerous dimensions that maybe did not fully exist prior to this digital age. A company can be considered innovative if it manages to find a new revenue stream or new use for an existing product; it does not have to come up with a “new” product or service each time.

Secondly, truly innovative companies are one’s who constantly watch cultural trends and adapt and evolve their existing strategies, products and services to take advantage of them. A great example is America Express. Rather than fall into the trap of launching new or improved products all the time, they re-shape their existing ones to keep pace with changing behavior.

Amex recently re-branded their long running Membership Rewards Program as the New Social Currency; tapping directly into the growing global social commerce trend. While it is a masterstroke, companies too often fail to follow-thru on brilliant ideas like this – which means that in the end many such initiatives resemble hollow, smoke filled efforts that simply re-brand with no real substance behind it.

Not Amex; which is what makes them such a formidable and admired brand. On the heels of this re-branding (of their rewards program) they made three announcements that provide the substance and follow through needed to make it real to their customers:

  1. Use your Amex Rewards to pay for purchases on Amazon
  2. Foursquare check-in’s now provide access to special discounts and Amex rewards, at certain retail locations
  3. Yesterday, they announced that their OPEN small business card members can use rewards points to buy and pay for ads on Facebook

Innovation – absolutely! In one fell swoop not only did they re-energize their rewards program by making it more valuable for existing card members, but also tapped into the heart of a younger generation, filled with future card members.