Does Yahoo’s New Vision Miss an Opportunity?

Early in 2014 Marissa Mayer took to the stage at CES to articulate how Yahoo’s new corporate vision would take shape in the real world. Yahoo’s stated vision is: Yahoo makes the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining.” The words are powerful and inspiring but as my grandmother used to say; the proof of the pudding lies in the eating!

One could argue that when we get up in the morning, we brush our teeth, wash our face and we shower; all these are also considered daily habits – so is Yahoo going to make some or all of our mundane morning routines more inspiring? Perhaps, Unilever or Procter & Gamble are better placed to deliver this vision. Of course, I am being facetious but you get my point. The power of any corporate vision lies entirely in how well its products and services are delivered, in a customer-centric manner, and how unique and compelling they can make the offering. At CES, Ms. Mayer also stated that the crux of this new vision was around“…simplifying [Yahoo’s] business, moving from complexity to clarity.” Simplification is a good thing but what exactly does this mean for Yahoo?

Last year Ms. Mayer hired David Pogue, the well-known New York Times tech reporter, and followed this with another high profile media personality earlier this year. Katie Couric will serve as Yahoo’s global news anchor. Ms. Mayer went on to add “we decided to do what I love – harness the power of the web and deliver it in a concise experience, like that found in the beautiful, elegant magazine.” Yahoo’s first digital magazine was launched with much fanfare at CES, by Mr. Pogue. He explained, “At Yahoo Tech, we’re going to speak English, it’s called human – we’re taking care of the middle 85% of internet users, the normal people.” This will be followed by Yahoo Food, and Yahoo News Digest which will utilize Summly’s technology (one of the startups Yahoo bought) to pull content from various sources across the web, and neatly summarize them into digestible little bits for readers; and this “highly personalized content for users” will be delivered in a “mobile-first” experience.

Perhaps, I am a Luddite but my reading of all this translates into Yahoo turning itself into an even more media-focused company than it was at its inception; one that might rival an AOL and Huffington Post one day. I understand this strategy is being driven by the fact that Yahoo has always been a content-driven advertising platform, and content brings eyeballs which in turn brings advertisers and ad revenue. So it would seem that Ms. Mayer is going back to the company’s roots but smartly dressing it up with sexy design, intuitive technology; served up in a mobile offering that is bite sized, easy to digest and highly personalized. While I laud the fact that she is not trying to re-invent the wheel and trying to offer a simpler, more personal internet; at a time when the web has started to feel more and more like an unwieldy behemoth of crappy content – I have two concerns.

The first lies in Yahoo trying to create original content. For them to be successful, their content needs to be stuff that people will not only find valuable but also want to consume and share with others; on a daily basis. When Yahoo was born, back in 1994, the internet was a barren wasteland for content but today it is a very different story. The creation of quality content is no longer limited to companies or organisations with a vast array of talent and financial resources; in fact quite the opposite. These days the most engaging, imaginative and ‘real’ content is being created by individuals with a point-of-view and a smartphone. Yahoo will face the same challenge and struggles that every other content creator and aggregator is facing; from Time to Newsweek to AOL – the ability to differentiate their stuff, stay relevant and do it in a way that appeals to a wide audience and cut across age groups and geographies. A task much easier said than done in today’s content rich internet landscape. It is possible Yahoo will succeed where many others have failed but to me the bigger travesty is that by pursuing this path they might be missing a larger opportunity.

As the internet has grown, it has become much more restrictive and fragmented from a user standpoint. By this I mean that every major service today is trying to silo their users into using only their platform and/or offerings. As a result there is very little ability to share, cross-pollinate and navigate the internet in a free and uninhibited manner. All the major players are busy trying to create their own little fiefdoms; one that forces users to sign-in, browse, share, purchase, read, write, etc. through a single service. They are doing this because it allows them to accumulate valuable information on each of us; our habits and behaviours and likes and dislikes across the entire internet. Whether it is Google forcing people to create a GooglePlus profile to use any of their services (from Gmail to YouTube), Facebook making us use their login across the web, while systematically reducing their privacy barriers, or Apple and Amazon locking us in for all our entertainment needs – it is a race to know us better and read our minds so they can sell this information to advertisers, who in turn can sell us more.

However, unlike, Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft; Yahoo does not have their own social network, operating system, device, search engine or anything else that would tether them to a single platform or ecosystem. In this regard they are the only large internet player that can deliver truly agnostic products and services by combining the best third party partnerships with their proprietary technologies, like Summly. As the larger companies continue to force us deeper and deeper into their siloed ecosystems it will become even more valuable for consumers to find companies and products that allow us to unshackle the internet. Yahoo could be well positioned to do this if they don’t expend their energy and resources on making and selling pretty little digital magazines; which any Tom, Linda or Harry can do today.

This to my mind is where Yahoo should focus its business and efforts; positioning itself as the glue across the internet. They are the only company that can stand behind the promise of delivering a truly consumer-centered, device and platform agnostic vision. So while their goal to simplify the internet is a good one, their current strategy does not go far enough in tapping into what could become a huge differentiator and competitive advantage for Yahoo.

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.

Pepsi: In Need of a Refresh?

“When industry market share numbers came out in March, showing Pepsi-Cola slipped to No. 3, analysts quickly accused PepsiCo—and Chairman and Chief Executive Indra Nooyi—of taking their eyes off the company’s biggest brand.” (WSJ article: http://on.wsj.com/iF1Jel)

Just a couple of years ago Ms. Nooyi was considered a visionary and the messiah who had come to transform Pepsi. Today, the same people are raking her over the coals for not delivering in “the numbers” in the short-term.

Granted that Ms. Nooyi has had some major missteps along the way with the disastrous re-branding of Tropicana and the Sun Chips LOUD bag fiasco but I think that is to be expected when one is trying to fundamentally change the DNA of a company and brand.

From the beginning, Indra Nooyi, made clear that she was embarking in an ambitious and risky plan to change the complexion of Pepsi Co. by making it a more responsible and health conscious global company. She never hid the fact that she was going to do this by re-orienting Pepsi’s product portfolio to be healthier and less “junk-filled.” This is the equivalent of a corn flakes brand entering a country like India where people ate hot and spicy meals for breakfast. This brand laid out a strategy that said they would not expect to break even for at least 10+ years because their first objective was to change generationally entrenched consumer habits.

The same applies for Ms. Nooyi’s strategy. It is based on a long-term vision and relies on changing consumer habits over the period of a generation, not over a quarter. By taking advantage of a global health trend that is only going to grow in the future she is among that rare breed of CEO’s actually doing their job by thinking about the company ten to twenty years down the road.

I truly believe that one of the major reasons US companies today fail to dominate like they once did in the global marketplace is because so many have become slaves to this quarterly earnings and profit mentality driven by Wall Street.

The reason companies like Kellogg’s and IBM have succeeded and stayed dominant for more than 100 years. It is because they still take the long view; which often means investing and/or taking losses in the short-term to enter a market or implement a new strategy, which pays huge dividends and sets the company up to dominate in the future.

There is no substitute for a CEO’s long-term vision and strategy for a company.