Sushi night at Azia


The Microsoft gang enjoyed seafood carnage at Greenville's posh AZIA restaurant last night.

Two words: Yummy.

Awesome service, cool digs, $5 martinis (Wednesdays), and basically a flawless dining experience. If you're in Greenville (or ever pass through), I recommend it.

Great food. One of the many perks of hanging out with Bill Gates' crew on a regular basis.

Top: Volcano, Dragon, Shogun rolls + yellowfin, tuna, eel and octopus nagiri.
Above: A delicious sea bass.

Yes, I'm a freak who carries a camera everywhere he goes.

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From Jaffe Juice, caught via Joseph's copious Twittering:

We're all too familiar with the ultimate contradiction in the 30-second spot game - as every year goes by, we seem to be paying more for less. It makes no sense that as viewers continue to fragment to cable, favor video production over consumption or just switch to alternatives from DVD viewing to gaming, somehow marketers are conned into continuing to invest in the cluttered swill of wastage that is continually suffocating the last bit of life in the dying field of creativity.

According to Mediaweek, viewers aged 18-49 for network syndicated spots, viewership has gone DOWN by an average of 12% and some as much as 21% over last year. That equates to about 3 million viewers on average. But Media Agencies are still trying to use scare tactics on advertisers, boasting the fact that ad spots that are not locked in already will cost 30-40% more over last year.

Hat tip: Lori-Laurent Smith

...but wait, there's less!

I opened up my USA Today in my hotel room and looked at the latest Prime Time Nielsen ratings. Last week American Idol, the network's top rated program pulled in 24.7 and 23.2 million viewers for its Tuesday and Wednesday showings respectively.

And here's the kicker: there's another box which breaks down viewers 18-49 (didn't it used to be 24-39? I'm sure these numbers would be worse) and has the same AI numbers at 11.9 and 11.3 million respectively.

In other words, 52% of American Idol viewers are 50 and older??? I'm obviously assuming that a significant chunk of this viewership is 17 and younger...but I'm curious, to what extent do Nielsen numbers cover 17 and under? Irrespective, is it even possible that such a large percentage of viewers of the most watched program are outside of the (inflated) "coveted" demographic?

Read the whole post here.
Media agencies: You might want to rethink your gameplan. That singing you're hearing off in the distance, that's the fat lady singing your lullaby.

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Some fine thinking from the 864.


Brains on Fire's Justine Foo (PhD) on the sustainability of value props, innovation, and the courage of looking beyond conventional ROI:

Maybe it’s the idealist in me, but I’m hoping sustainability isn’t just a trend. I’m hoping this is the beginning of a paradigm shift toward more sustainable business practices in general. Not just with respect to the use of renewable vs. non-renewable resources for manufacturing. But also with respect to the kinds of consumer goods we innovate, and how we communicate about products and services to people. I long to see sustainability as a price of entry for doing business, and yes marketing. Wouldn’t it be nice if you actually kept, for example, 80% of the mail you get instead of throwing it straight in the trash?

We spend billions of dollars on communications that are short-lived and sadly waste paper, vinyl, and other things. We know that mass advertising isn’t having the impact it used to, and that we need to look to other venues like word of mouth. But even then we’re still thinking short term; creating buzz, not lasting energy and enduring excitement.


You’ll think I’m crazy. But I’m hoping that oil prices stay high. That the “crisis” mainstream advertisers are in doesn’t subside. That consumers continue to grow their demand for pesticide-free, natural, organic. Even that food prices rise. It’s instabilities like these that drive REAL change. Why? Because they create the motivation for finding a better way to do things. They force us to innovate and not relax back into the status quo.

Marketing, like manufacturing, stands at the doorstep of a great opportunity. An opportunity to revolutionize how we think about growth, measure return, and exist in relation to the communities that support us. Will we invest in developing better, smarter, more efficient ways to excite people about our products? Or will we continue to play the numbers game and bask in a false sense of security we feel when we’re promised a reach of thousands and millions of people, even when our strategic objectives have moved beyond raising awareness.

It will take courage to look beyond conventional ROI. It will take dedication and creativity to see new ways to measure return. It will also take companies demanding sustainability from their marketing departments and partners. And the recognition that it emerges from passion and excitement, not impressions.

Source post.

If you think that the gas prices comment is harsh, well... yeah. It is. But when we're too set in our ways to make necessary changes on our own, the universe has a funny way of using the foot-in-ass technique to get us to move. It may not be pleasant, but that's just how it is. Deal with it.

The same is true about business. Way too many companies are still in denial mode: "We've been doing it this way for 50 years and it's worked fine!" (Yet their business is going down the drain and they can't figure out why.) Wake up and smell what's cooking. Numbers don't lie. Customers don't lie. Your bottom-line and market share don't lie. Winners win and losers lose: What is true of athletes, nations, products and even species is also true of marketing campaigns and businesses.

Reality is often too harsh to bear. True leaders accept reality and deal with it. Far too many business executives, however, are not leaders. For them, competition, price pressures and innovation are the cosmic kicks to the rump that force them to cast their "business as usual" mentalities aside and get back in the game, sometimes much too late, when at all

Leaders and the companies they head will survive. Posers will not. I say let natural selection, market forces and user/customer communities sort them out.

Great post, Justine.

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I really wanted to have horror stories to share with you after my trip to San Antonio, but I don't! My flights were on time. All airline employees I ran into were friendly and professional. The cab drivers were polite and fast. The hotel was gorgeous and clean. The waiters were great. Everything clicked. Everything rolled like clockwork.

I am flabbergasted. Really. What happened to the broken systems I am so used to when I travel? Could it be that we have turned the corner? Has Delta Airlines fixed its issues?

Were the stars aligned for me this past week?

Has a karmic feedback loop formed around me?

Whatever the case may be, I am not complaining.

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Hello San Antonio!


Not a lot of time to blog tonight, but tomorrow should be a little less of a time crunch. Hanging out at the Grand Hyatt in downtown San Antonio, just a short walk from the famous Riverwalk. So far so good.

Oh, and I led my team to a very acceptable bronze medal in the Varnex/Cowboy Olympics this evening. (I even set a quick-draw record - which, for a non-Texan, isn't too shabby.)

The kid's still got it!

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Wednesday is a travel day.


Heading west to Varnex today.
There will be copious blogging.
End of transmission.

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Divide 3.0


"I realize the conversations I'm having today are going to turn into business in about two years. The problem is convincing everyone else."
- Tim Coote from a Twitter post.

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Aaaaaaand... back to Roby's world.


While we're all going about our daily business - driving to work, shopping at Target or Whole Foods or Starbucks, watching John Adams on HBO, and doing whatever it is we do, tens of thousands of men and women are serving overseas in areas that aren't exactly... um... safe. F360's Roby (photo above) is still one of them - although he should be heading home pretty soon. (Keeping our fingers crossed.)

Just to bring home Roby's current lifestyle, here are some of his combat photographer images from Afghanistan (while his unit trains the locals to kick the Taliban in the teeth without US help):

Good stuff.

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Dear Blogger/Blogspot,

We've been together for what... three years now? Almost four? Wow. Time flies when you're having fun. We've had a good time together, writing and publishing blog posts. But you know, this last month, I've been seeing another blog... and I think that the grass is greener there. So... I think we should still be friends... but I think that I might be moving to WordPress soon.

I hate to hurt your feelings, and I do stay up at night wondering what the move will do to our technorati rankings, but whatever. Change is necessary. Evolution is necessary. I need to spread my wings. So sometime in the next few weeks, I am going to start moving all of my stuff over to WordPress.

It isn't anything you did. It's just... I need more. Cleaner pages, better reporting, more control over my own posts, better integration with what will, over the next year, become a more comprehensive website.

I will keep you and all of our friends updated, but I wanted you to be the first to know: the brandbuilder will be moving to WordPress in the next few weeks. I've played with the idea several times in the past, but now that I have been testing WP for a few weeks, I understand why the move is necessary.

I'll keep everyone updated on what should be a pretty smooth and painless little move.

Have a great Monday!

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Blogging from Varnex this week.


Welcome to travel week #37. I'm actually in the office today and tomorrow, but getting everything ready for Varnex 2008 v.1 in San Antonio, TX... which is kind of why the blogging has been a little bit light lately. (Sorry, being all corporate and whatnot, making sure my unit hits its numbers and all that.)

I plan to blog from Varnex both here on the BrandBuilder and the Microsoft Sherpa blog, so stay tuned. (Expect at least one blog post here to be about my air travel adventures - as usual.)

And to help things along, I've added a little tool to my travel kit:

As much as I love my Canon SLR's with their GIANT 2.8 lenses, they're kind of a drag to carry around on business trips, what with the extra bag and whatnot. The G9 is pretty tight for several reasons: 1) 12.1 megapixels. 2) It shoots jpg and RAW. 3) f2.8 lens. (Oh yeah.) 4) Full manual mode, exactly like a pro-level SLR: Manual control of the shutter speed and ISO. 5) Even with all that, it still fits in your pocket.


If I have time later today, I will tell you all about my triple-sorry experience with circuit City this weekend. It was so bad, I almost feel bad for them. (If anything, almost everyone there was at least friendly, but man, do they need process improvements.) Stay tuned.

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Lewis Green on Taking Measure of a Boss


Great post by Lewis green over at BizSolutionsPlus on how great leadership can build great brands. Here's a taste:

You can tell a lot about leadership by studying how leaders live their lives outside their work. Whether President of the United States or Starbucks or L&G Business Solutions, we can take the measure of a boss not only by evaluating their principles and how they lead at work, but perhaps more so by how they behave when they are away from the office.

Let's take a look at one such leader: Howard Schultz, Chairman and CEO, Starbucks.
Schultz reinvented Starbucks after he purchased the company from its original owners in 1987. Initially, he joined Starbucks in 1982, which was then a small Seattle retailer with five stores. He bought Starbucks in 1987, bringing a new vision that was to be built upon a solid foundation of Guiding Principles, which became the following.
The following six guiding principles will help us measure the appropriateness of our decisions:

1. Provide a great work environment and treat each other with respect and dignity.

2. Embrace diversity as an essential component in the way we do business.

3. Apply the highest standards of excellence to the purchasing, roasting and fresh delivery of our coffee.

4. Develop enthusiastically satisfied customers all of the time.

5. Contribute positively to our communities and our environment.

6. Recognize that profitability is essential to our future success.

Ultimately, these Principles alongside passionate leaders and employees grew the business beyond anyone's imagination. By 1997, Starbucks boasted 1,300 stores, 25,000 employees, and an international brand that rivaled all others. This month, Starbucks Market Capitalization stands at a lofty $14.5 billion.

However, Starbucks faces several serious challenges, as its brand image seems in decline. For all practical intents and purposes, Schultz left the day-to-day operations at Starbucks to others nearly a decade ago.

Schultz recently, as Michael Dell did last year, returned and jammed both his thumbs into the dikes to stem the obvious leaks that have occurred, leading to a decline in the Third Place Experience and a perceived reduction in product quality. One wonders if this is the same Howard Schultz, however, that as a young entrepreneur surprised everyone by his success.

The young Schultz refused to take a salary for several years after buying the company. He insisted on ethical behavior from all. He surrounded himself with smart people. He motivated and inspired everyone he touched. His passion was contagious. And he could be trusted and relied upon in every conceivable way.

Read the rest of the post here.

We can all agree that poor leadership can kill great companies, and inspired leadership can turn small companies into extraordinary powerhouses. How does your boss fare as a leader? Where is he/she taking your organization? If you're a boss, take a step back and be honest with yourself. Are there things you could do better? What are they? What are you doing TODAY, this week, this month to take them off your "I'm not super good at this" list?

As a business, department or project leader, how are you REALLY impacting the brand(s) you serve? If you don't know or can't be objective about it, you might want to ask for your peers' input. Ask them to anonymously tell you one thing you do extremely well, and the one thing they think you should get better at right now.

What's most impressive about this whole Schultz thing is learning that he refused to take a salary his frst few years on the job. How many CEOs today would do the same thing?

Integrity is a pretty powerful thing.

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Brand-User engagement: The case for social media


Excellent post by Gavin heaton over at Servant of Chaos today about the role of social media in building and strengthening brands:

The opportunity for brands to begin building trust and engaging with their consumers through social media and blogs etc is compelling. Not only can social media begin building a network of trust between the brand and its consumers, but the continued (micro) exposure will bring closer identification between the two. It is also important to remember that your employees are also consumers -- and they have expectations of your brand and are well known to be the best source of brand ambassadors/evangelists.

With all this in mind, is there a need for a "chief blogger"?

Go here to find out what Gavin's answer is.

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Fixing Death by Powerpoint: The Presentation


I guess I've always been a decent communicator. Not great, but occasionally good, and most of the time decent. One area that I could improve upon is my powerpoint design skills. Sure, I can present just about anything well with the help of powerpoint, but actually DESIGNING a presentation (slides, content, narrative, etc.) in such a way as to captivate, engage and delight... eh, not so much. Just like many of you, I have mostly settled for creating slides that presented data and organized talking points with bullets.

And yes, I am guilty of using mostly "approved" backgrounds, when I should instead work on creating one effective and kickass slide after the other.

All of this is in the process of changing. I have started creating and filing what will someday become a pretty hefty collection of ready-to-use Powerpoint silver bullets. The goal: cut my powerpoint design times down to almost nothing while producing cool, sticky presentations.

Well... that's the goal anyway.

To see where I am going with this, click on Alexei Kapterev's "Death By Powerpoint" presentation (top of post). For a completely original (and definitely non-corporate) use of powerpoint, click on Blaine Cook's eComm 2008 presentation below.

Good stuff. (And yes, I dig Slideshare a lot.)

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Ah. Air travel. One of my favorite topics (usually filed under "broken system report").

So... according to a recent study of air travel satisfaction, the US air travel infrastructure seems to be heading in the wrong direction. While technology, marketing and customer experience design are making giant forward leaps, the airline industry in the US seems to be taking giant steps backwards... or maybe not since a giant step backwards would actually mean comfortable seats, friendly staff, real onboard food/drink service, on-time arrivals, and no one getting bumped. Ever.

The reality, however, is pretty scary, as anyone who flies the friendly skies on a regular basis already knows. (Don't even get me started about the steel cart of death.)


On-time arrivals dropped for the fifth straight year, with more than one-quarter
of all flights late, according to the survey. The rates of passengers bumped
from overbooked flights and bags lost, stolen or damaged also jumped in

Stolen bags. Hmmm. Yeah. I hope that Homeland Security and the TSA have a backup plan in case the whole baggage handlers as a first line of defense thing doesn't work out.

Six airlines — Frontier, Northwest, SkyWest, Southwest, United and US
Airways — showed declines in every area in the survey, although Southwest still
had the best on-time arrival mark at 80.1 percent. The Dallas-based carrier also
had the lowest rate of consumer complaints, 0.26 per 100,000 passengers.

Still, the airline has not been immune from problems. It is fighting a
record $10.2 million fine from the Federal Aviation Administration for
continuing to fly dozens of Boeing 737s that hadn't been inspected for cracks in
their fuselages.

American, Delta and United airlines recently canceled flights to
perform unscheduled inspections of certain aircraft, and US Airways found
problems on some Boeing 757s after a wing part on one of its planes fell off
during a flight.

Wonderful. In retrospect, maybe having to pay $7 for a ham-like-meat sandwich and being forced to deal with passive aggressive flight attendants with questionable hygiene are the least of my worries.

The Airline Quality Rating study, compiled annually since 1991, is based on
Transportation Department statistics for airlines that carry at least 1 percent
of the passengers who flew domestically last year. The research is sponsored by
the Aviation Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and by Wichita
State University. The other airlines in the survey were AirTran, Alaska,
American Eagle, Atlantic Southeast, Continental, Jet Blue and Mesa.

Among the study's conclusions:

- More than one-third of Atlantic Southeast Airlines flights were late, the worst on-time performance in 2007.

- The airlines also bumped passengers more often, at a rate of 4.5 per 10,000 passengers. JetBlue and AirTran were far ahead of their competitors in avoiding bumping passengers from flights, at 0.02 and 0.15 per 10,000 passengers, respectively.

- AirTran had the best baggage handling rate, at 4.06 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers. American Eagle ranked last in baggage handling with 13.55 mishandled bags per 1,000 passengers.


Growing up in France in the 70's and 80's, I learned at a pretty early age to discern which European (and non-European) countries had the highest standards of living by experiencing their travel infrastructure - including airlines.

If we are to be a shining beacon to the world, we really can't afford to allow the quality of our air travel to sink this low. We already don't have much of a rail system, so it isn't like we can fall back on Plan B. There are no bullet trains that can get us from Houston to Chicago, from DC to Miami, or from Atlanta to San Francisco.

Some airlines are managing to thrive in this dreadful state of disrepair, as they should. Shame on the airlines that can't adjust to rising costs and aging aircraft. Yeah, sure, prices may need to go up a bit, but you can offset a 5-10% uplift in ticket prices by giving passengers something in return (and no, I don't mean sky miles). It's like everything else. When the conversation drifts to price, then you haven't done a good job of selling value.

If you want to change the conversation and talk about something other than price, then you'd better have something great to talk about. How about this:

1. First, make sure you have the most impressive safety record in the industry, and TALK ABOUT IT. (If US Air's wings lose parts during flight, you want to be on the total opposite end of that spectrum.)

2. Hire professional looking/acting staff. You're in the airline industry, for crying outloud. Bring a little bit of glamour back to your brand experience and make your company's name synonymous with that hint of luxury. I want to be greeted with smiles at the check-in, at the gate, and onboard the plane. I want to be treated like a valued guest, and not like another ass-in-seat hassle. I don't want to be berrated by a power-tripping ogre struggling to deal with another 2-3 lousy years left until retirement. Give me smiles and professional looking people. You know, with uniforms that a) fit properly and b) get pressed every once in a while. Give me enthusiasm and manners. If hotels and most companies in the US can do it, surely airlines can as well.

3. In-flight service: Look it up. Hint: Charging $7-$10 for a POS vending machine sandwich is just dumb and beyond gauche. #1: You're ripping off your own customers, and they will remember it. #2: Food of such insipid quality doesn't belong on your flights. (Not unless you stow wooden crates and live poultry in the same hold as your passengers.) Treat your passengers well.

4. Scratch overbooking from your MO.

5. Invest in some toiletry kits. That way, when the baggage handlers at one of your twenty+ airports steal a passenger's Vuitton suitcases, you'll at least give your angry passenger a) Fresh breath, and b) the notion that while the airport may not care about them, you sure as hell do.

6. Buy aircraft with comfortable seats. (Before buying the damn things, get your senior execs to fly from coast to coast in one of them.)

7. Drop routes that don't make sense. Better to be small and great than big and crappy.

8. Be insanely nice to your passengers when they exit the plane.

9. Toys or coloring books for kids. Yes, even in the era of Gameboys, iPods and PSPs, the ubiquitos free branded toy goes a long way.

10. I hate to sound like Papa Seth, but make te experience memorable (in a positive way). Just like The Standard Hotel makes a point to make every detail of the guest experience cool and story-worthy, an airline can (and should) as well. Redesign your uniforms. Redesign your aircraft interior. Redesign the entire experience of booking, checking-in, waiting at the gate, boarding the aircraft, flying, landing and exiting the terminal memorable. (It doesn't need to eat into your profits either. A little bit of forethought doesn't hurt.) In other words, get your heads out of the numbers for a bit and take a more holistic approach to managing your business/airline.

In other words, build some value.

Stop whining, stop complaining about the price of fuel and the pilots' unions and overcrowding at most of our country's airports, and do whatever you have to do to become the best damn airline in the US (and then the world).

If the issue is Wall Street, fire your board, appoint people to it who can put together a rejuvenation plan, and send them to speak to your investors with a kickass proposal they will rally behind. Make them understand that business-as-usual and damage-control won't cut it in the long-term, and that you have a real plan to get back on track. Not just financially, but from a true market leadership standpoint.

Easier said than done? Sure. Of course. But that's no reason not to try.

Just for sport, let's have a show of hands: How many airlines are doing this right now?

1? 2? 3, maybe? Yeah. That's what I thought.

For shame.

This is not a problem that can be fixed by cutting costs (the equivalent of ancient medicine's practice of bleeding sick patients). This is a problem that must be fixed through cultural change from within the organization: Airlines that stand for something and deliver on the expectations of their most critical passengers will stand out and do extremely well. Those who are merely content to stay afloat, those who fear Wall Stree and fickle investors, those who have no plan to rebuild their airlines as opposed to slowly bleeding them to death or relying on government bailouts will continue down this ill-fated path.

When I bite into a stale $7 POS sandwich on a crowded flight with dirty floors, mean flight attendants and no chance of making my next connection, all I see is lousy leadership, and it sucks.

This really needs to be fixed.

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Ohhhhh... Surface!


As you may or may not know, Microsoft's very awesome Surface technology launches this month in at&t stores in select US cities.

Everything you've ever wanted to know about Surface is just a click away. (And yes, the post there involves wookies, droids and a certain Dejarik version of Microsoft Surface.)

Transparent Blogging: I normally wouldn't direct you, my faithful readers, to one of my other "corporate" blogs, but I already wrote the post on SYNNEX's Microsoft Sherpa blog and didn't feel like re-posting it here. Let it be known that I do manage Microsoft distribution in the US for SYNNEX. SYNNEX does not, however, sell Microsoft Surface technology.

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