Resurgence in the North is down to true grittiness

Growing up, I didn’t feel particularly northern. I didn’t have any geographic or social points of reference to benchmark, but I’m glad I am northern. My dad didn’t keep two greyhounds and race them and my mum didn’t polish the front step every day, but I did grow up with a coal bunker at the back of the house and teenage years in pubs with chunky beer glasses with a handle. I miss that – the beer glasses with handles, not the coal-bunker.

I was 17 before I caught sight of Euston Station. It’s true, though I had no need of London then and I guess it had no need of me. However, I do believe there is such a thing as a northern sensibility and it’s nothing to do with chips & gravy nor Coronation Street. It’s nigh on impossible to describe it, but I know it when I see it and I feel it myself in my marrow. It’s a grittiness that I don’t think has a Southern equivalent.

The south seems to be a place of judgement and self-glorifying. The north has a dictionary and thesaurus of its own and its words are for everyone.  As Paul Morley describes the north: warmth, decency, truth and proper beer, with a side order of menace, whilst T S Eliot noted Lancashire wit is mordant, ferocious, and personal.

When you’re northern, you’re northern forever, and you’re instilled with a certain feel for life that you can’t get rid of. You really can’t. Blinded by such glamour as Bet Lynch in Coronation Street, most southerners swallow the stereotype, but there is humour, humility and honesty in the north that is characterised by the goings-on in The Rovers Return. Truth is, the crux of the problem is that as northerners we have much more common sense and an innate ability to appreciate and understand the value of everything.

It is the sense of sensual attachment and shared purpose of traditional community life that makes the north a pleasant place to be. Let me not become too misty-eyed, but there are places in which Cub Scout packs, libraries, amateur dramatics, brass bands and allotment societies still thrive. There is still much about northern life that would make Orwell puff on his pipe and smile.

Of course, there are also town centres that have become desolate denizens of payday lenders, discount stores and kebab shops, and employment opportunities are desperate for many despite what The Bullingdon Boys would have you believe.  However, the north scores highly for self-employment hot spots, an indication that people are willing to strive for prosperity under their own efforts, even if that’s a matter of necessity after paid employment has been lost.

It boasts progressive clusters of new businesses – take the town of Burnley, which I’m especially fond of, because it happens to be my spiritual home around post code BB10 4BX (Turf Moor – Ordnance Survey reference SD836326 – I know my team). It’s a tough old place but is starting to throw off the long shadow of Thatcher, being voted the UK’s most enterprising and entrepreneurial UK town in 2013, and today the north is seeing some of the fastest business growth in the UK – it’s alive and kicking.

With jubilant jeers from the Government benches and bold growth forecasts, the innate fire-in-the-belly entrepreneurial spirit that made northern cities great from the Victorian Era onwards has resurfaced with renewed vigour and confidence in the region. In the lexicon of media clichés, the north is always grim – and news to the contrary always seems to come as a surprise to our friends in the South.

We had a recent upbeat check of the northern pulse by Ian Powell, UK Chairman of PWC, reporting double-digit growth in his firm’s activities out of Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle, while a Lloyds Bank survey reported high levels of private sector activity and job creation in the North East. All this confirms a resurgence of northern get-up-and-go.

Of course recovery is relative, and if the north is making a comeback it’s doing from a long-way back as a result of deep-rooted decline. Let’s accept that there is and will always be a North-South divide – an over-used and abused throwaway phrase – because the leverage of wealth towards the global-status of London is an irresistible force, but the northern enterprise culture never died, it just went into hibernation.

But what is missing is a recognition of the innate entrepreneurial and mercantile spirit that made the great northern cities in the first place, and that from my perspective living on the edge of the Pennines, quality of life and purpose derives from people, landscape and culture, rather than weight of money.

Take Manchester. Manchester’s urbanisation was brought on by a boom in textile engineering, manufacture and trade creating the Industrial Revolution, resulting in it becoming the world’s first industrialised city as centre of the global cotton industry. Manchester was, and continues to be, the home of great free-traders and free-thinkers.  It’s kept its stunning C19th architectural heritage but reinvented itself as a science and education city, rich in hi-tech start-ups, with a clubbing scene second to none – or the Hallé Orchestra, if that gets your toes tapping more.

Manchester was the site of the world’s first railway station, the place where scientists first split the atom, and the home of the first stored-programme computer.  Decline has been reversed with investment in the last two decades, spurred by the IRA’s 1996 bombing – which was the largest bomb ever detonated in peacetime Britain – and the 2002 Commonwealth Games spearheading extensive regeneration.

Today Manchester is ranked as a beta world city by the Globalisation and World Cities Research Network. The only people who seem to dislike being there are the avant-garde Media City BBC folk relocated from Notting Hill, who can’t hide a sneer at northern non-sophistication. I’m about to ditch Radio 5 Live in I hear the weather…its…Northern on air once more. Remember, Paul Heaton said it was London 0 Hull 4 back in 1985…

Start-ups are springing up, SMEs hiring apprentices, creating jobs, ambitious for themselves. The elements of northern revival are based on long‑term deep-rooted social cohesion, the ethos of the co-operative movement and personal resilience and sheer labour – more so, arguably, than the transient property fuelled-froth of the south-east economy, with its reliance on foreign cash and an over-sized financial services sector.

Of course there’s a rich layer of irony and blatant contradictions in these claims and we have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves. With a new vigour and positive spirit beginning to shine through in the economic indicators, in terms of potential, it’s the northerners who are on the right side of the north-south divide.

So what is it about the north that has seen it pull itself up by its bootstraps, dust itself down, grab itself by the scruff of the neck and see folks set up their own businesses?

Starting and running your own business is like a race. You learn how others do it, practice continually, keep in shape and show guts to keep going and try to stay ahead of the pack if you want to win. You put blood, sweat and tears into it, but there are no guarantees and you can’t always be the winner.

Can you overcome setbacks, or do you get easily discouraged? Are you confident, or do you smell of insecurity? You can’t be thin skinned or faint hearted when you run your own show. You’ve got to have vision, stamina, creative thinking and, most of all, grit and resilience. Even when your friends and family think you’re nuts, there are fundamentals of being a self-starter that I’ve seen from the thriving start-up businesses and communities in the north:

  • They have a vision and a passion of what the future could be like for them and their businesses. Their enthusiasm attracts people to their ideas.
  • They don’t mess around, dilly-dally or procrastinate. They make decisions swiftly. Their swiftness provides a key factor in their success.
  • They are action-oriented, they are doers. They get things done and love to turn their ideas into reality as quickly as possible.
  • They implement their ventures with total commitment. They seldom give up, even when confronted by obstacles that seem insurmountable.
  • They are totally dedicated to their business. They work tirelessly.
  • They love what they do. It is that devotion that sustains them when the going gets tough – it is also the love of their product or service that makes them so effective at selling it.
  • They have self-belief, they want to be in charge of their own destiny rather than depend on an employer.
  • They want to make a difference. Getting rich is not the prime motivator. They assume that if they succeed they will be rewarded.
  • They understand what it takes to succeed and often have a high physical stamina to carry them through their lives and work. They have grit.

Grit trumps everything else. And it’s not just a north of England thing, research shows that it is one of the defining characteristics of successful start-up entrepreneurs. Psychologist Angela Duckworth undertaking research at The Duckworth Lab at Penn State University defines psychological grit as perseverance and passion for long term goals. Check out her TED talk here:

Duckworth’s research focuses on two traits that predict success in life: grit and self-control. Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. On average, individuals who are gritty are more self-controlled, stay with their focus, and succeed. Here’s the link to her web site:

She’s formulated a survey to determine your level of grittiness, see how you score: My ranking was 4.25, 85% on the True Grit dashboard. Not bad!

Grit has emerged as a significant indicator for success – even more than IQ, talent, and social intelligence. It’s the part of you that simply will not give up on your ideal future and works to figure out a path to get there. Many people lack this grit because they see life as a series of circumstances that happen to them rather than an ideal future that they can create. Actor Will Smith talks a little differently about grit:

The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things – you got it on me in nine categories. But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

Start-ups see people jumping off the cliff with no parachute, with no promise of a parachute – someone might rip your parachute off you at some point in the future anyway! You need grit and mental toughness to manage your mind-set and emotions whilst you aim for that landing spot for your business.

Grit gives you the sheer will-power and determination to keep going day after day, when the going gets tough. Sometimes it’s difficult to see progress, how can you keep your eyes on the prize and yet your head down during the inevitable slog period of anything worthwhile?  You fall down seven times, but have to get up eight.

The recession we seem to be emerging from was Britain’s worst in 100 years. Over 7% of our economy was obliterated leaving the worst youth unemployment and smashing graduate ambitions for a generation. The north was pushed to the brink. But grit and the human spirit is at the heart of everything I believe in, and we’re seeing an entrepreneurial vibrancy return. If you would create something, you must be something, it’s down to your tenacity, drive and perseverance. Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness, and imagine this: the north fully restored. That’s True Grit.

Richard Branson would make a great Father Christmas

Christmas might be about many things – jumbo tinfoil, the only time in the year you eat stollen, and wearing cheap coloured paper hats – but if there’s one thing above all others that Christmas is for then it’s lively debates around the festive table with your nearest and dearest. This is because Christmas is supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year’, but everyone has their own unique idea of what ‘wonderful’ consists of.

For some people, it would be playing tennis on the frozen lawns of their Cotswold dower house, for others, putting the Christmas cake on their head and racing around the house against their sister. Yes I did that and ended up in the doghouse as the cake didn’t make a great landing cornering around the dining room table. Still, the dog enjoyed the icing.

Clearly, in a world with such disparate values and beliefs, what Christmas means and how we celebrate it can be sources of intense debate. However, there are a number of key issues we must resolve as far ahead of the big day as possible to ensure it goes well for all involved. In my mind there are five key debates:

1. Slade or Wizard: in the thrilling Merry Christmas Everybody, Noddy Holder intended to write the great working-class Christmas song. With its euphoric debauchery undercut with melancholy, and its Royle Family-like lyrics (Does your granny always tell ya that the old songs are the best? Then she’s up and rock’n’rollin’ with the rest), Merry Christmas Everybody does instil a nostalgic renaissance for Christmases of my youth, notably wandering round Woolworth’s whimsically wondering whether to buy my mum a tin of Quality Street or Roses.

I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday, meanwhile, is so great that one simply goes along with Roy Wood’s assertion, rather than pausing for a minute and saying Actually Roy, if it were Christmas every day, I’d be really fed up by March, and we’d all have scoliosis from sleeping on the floor in the spare room. There’s something in Roy’s staring eyes that disturbs me too.

Winner: Slade, IT’S CHRIIIIIIISMUSSSSS! although honourable mention for my personal favourite – Jona Lewie, Stop the Cavalry, all together now Dub a dub a dum dum, Dub a dub a dum dum, Dub a dum dum dub a dub dub….Wish I was at home for Christmas

2. Clear or Coloured Fairy Lights: working class people have multi-coloured lights, because they’re ‘great’; middle-class people have clear lights, because they’re ‘classy’ – well that’s what The Times once said, and I’ve never forgotten it.

People who were working class but have become middle class buy clear lights, and then spend the Christmas season feeling vaguely uncomfortable that their tree looks a bit sparse and Puritan. However, my wife’s catholic upbringing means she is too busy lighting the winter candles of Vatican proportions in our house to notice. (note to self: check fire alarm batteries).

Winner: multi-coloured fairy lights. At the risk of sounding treacly, there is just something a magical about bringing a big, riotous burst of colour to a random corner of your living room, or your front porch, or strung across your kitchen window. It changes the whole look of the place. You dim the big lights and suddenly it’s all red, green and blue. Apart from the pointless green ones, which get a bit lost among the greenness of a green tree.

3. Quality Street or Roses: like George Foreman v Muhammad Ali, the ultimate Christmas debate perhaps? Cadbury’s Roses or Nestlé Quality Street?

First impressions from intense personal research is that Quality Street initially seems to be mostly comprised of toffees, caramels and fudges, but the Cadbury box is equally guilty, it also contains six chocolates along this theme. Actually, this is worse, as the Roses box only contains ten types of chocolate while the Quality Street contains twelve.

Ostensibly similar – coffee crèmes, strawberry crèmes, various shenanigans with nuts and caramel – Roses were always well ahead for me, because the only thing going for Quality Street was the Green Triangle which has always seemed like some high-tech sweet, possibly left over from the set of Star Trek.

Thanks to the subsequent rise of Celebrations and Miniature Heroes, both Roses and Quality Street have had to face a radically changed chocolate landscape and adjust their content. For Roses, this has meant scrapping many of the old faithfuls – coffee crème, strawberry crème, toffee penny. Quality Street, meanwhile, has tried to reiterate what it sees as its core values: primarily cheap toffee that takes a filling out.

Winner: Roses. The mighty Caramel Keg is a classic.

4. Best guest for Christmas dinner: At 11pm on Christmas Day, when the number of empty Theakston’s Old Peculiar bottles on our kitchen table resembles a recycling tip of a small English town, we always start to discuss who you would invite for your ideal Christmas dinner guest, obviously bored by present company. Passions are aroused as names are thrown into the discussion, advocates of each lobbying noisily for their choices to be included, but whom would you invite?

I’m pretty sure George Orwell would be a great guest, but he would hate the whole celebratory atmosphere, he’d much prefer a quiet drink at the pub. Karl Pilkington would be there to annoy people with his morose, cynical anecdotes, and then perhaps become just irritating, and maybe Voltaire, because he was witty, good looking and charming – everything I’m not, so you need a balance. Maybe I should have a really serious guest? Someone along the lines of Leo Tolstoy? Perhaps not, could get a bit heavy. I must be in a trivial mood, but at times triviality makes life worthwhile.

Winner: Ernest Shackleton, he would ensure that if we ran out of food and drink he’d launch an audacious visit to the local off licence to secure supplies, whatever the distance and weather, and save us all.

5. Best person to play Father Christmas If someone was to build a passenger-carrying rocket for joy rides into space, would you go? Of course you would, especially if Richard Branson was involved, and he’s be my choice to be Father Christmas – he’s a beardy bloke so already halfway there.

I’ve had some mixed experience with Virgin Atlantic going to the USA, the last time we went the rate of progress through the boarding queue was so slow that technically I was classified as a missing person.

But let’s consider Branson himself. In the 1990s, barely a week went by when we weren’t treated to the unedifying spectacle of Branson’s mouse like little face being winched to safety from some vast expanse of ocean.  His speedboats kept running into logs of wood or his balloons were always too heavy for sustained flight. Shave off the face fungus I thought, that’d lighten things up.

Despite the often-disastrous attempts to go across the Pacific on a tea tray or up Everest on a washing machine, I do like the way he keeps on trying, his boldness and attitude of giving it-a-go and the way he’s made it in business without a pinstripe suit or a predilection for golf or freemasons.

He says he’ll get us into space with Virgin Galactic and I’m up for that although I’m not sure about the £100k ticket price and then getting a seat next to Bob Geldof. I like Bob’s attitude and outspokenness, he’d be goo to chat too I’m sure, but can you imagine what he’d be like complaining about slow in-flight cabin service?

My concern about Virgin Galactic wouldn’t be the perilous spins, loud bangs and crashes of Branson’s previous failures as I sat there, but rather the expectation that every passenger will have to conform to Branson’s relaxed style and only allowed to fly in jumpers and corduroys, with his face beaming out from the safety procedure videos. He’s got nice teeth though.

But recall Fatal Attraction, you thought Glenn Close was dead, you relaxed and then, whoa, she reared up out of the bath with that big spiky knife. That’s one thing Branson doesn’t do. No, not lie in a bath of cold water pretending to be dead, love him or loathe him, he doesn’t sit back and think That’s it, I’ve had enough.  He just keeps on with his self-belief and crashes into the next idea. He never gives up, a dose of Branson’s can-do and will-do attitude is just what we all need to take our businesses forward.

Perhaps the lasting legacy of Branson’s continued success is his focus on identifying new markets and bringing successful customer-oriented business models to them. Within this, there are a number of traits of Branson’s attitude and approach that I admire, and that we could all do well to replicate in our everyday business ‘thinking and doing’:

Do what you want to do What is your purpose, what is your vision? Identify what you want to do and with tenacity and resolution, make it happen. It’s good to be specific – wanting to be rich isn’t helpful as it’s too vague. Your ‘I want to…’ statement only needs to be one sentence, but have clarity and focus.

An entrepreneur is not unlike an artist. What you have when you start a company is a blank canvas, you have to fill it with both the ‘big picture’ and the detail in order to succeed. However, unlike a work of art, a business is never finished, it constantly evolves. Branson epitomises this ‘do what you want to do’ attitude, and gives it a go with every new venture.

Create something that stands out It is not easy to start a company and to survive and thrive. In fact, you’ve got to do something radically different to make your mark today. For me, building a business is all about doing something to be proud of, bringing talented people together and creating something that’s going to make a real difference to other people’s lives. Branson has done this for 40 years, shaking up sectors by doing something that hadn’t been done and by continually innovating.

Then, I think Branson takes three further steps that make him different:

Think big Branson thinks big. He steps outside of his comfort zone, he makes every second count and tries new things taking calculated risks. Branson believes that anything is possible, that everything is negotiable, that rules are made to be broken and that business is a fun and creative way of life.

Think bigger Branson takes his first vision, then stretches it. How can you scale and leverage to increase your total success? Branson believes in thinking bigger, in leading from the front, in action over hope, in making it happen – and in controlling his own personal destiny. He goes for it.

Think biggest Branson is all about the possibilities to keep growing, taking advantage of opportunities to ‘think biggest’. He has a solution-focused attitude, an ambitious and passionate nature, a competitive, enthusiastic, resilient, bold, rebellious and ruthless approach to life. He believes he can.

It’s safe to say that Richard Branson perceives life somewhat differently than the majority, and it is this perspective that drives his thinking and actions everyday. He lives his life on the edge, living life to the fullest, living for the moment, with a work-hard/play-hard mentality. He chases his dreams, backed up by perseverance, imagination and courage, trusting his instincts.

So for me, Branson would make a great Father Christmas, cutting a dash on his sleigh, pulled along by those fabulous reindeer. Of course, whilst he has the beard, the reindeer have no tail – you know the story? Well, once upon a time, a reindeer took a running leap and jumped over the Northern Lights, but he jumped too low, and the long fur of his beautiful flowing tail got singed by the rainbow fires of the aurora – that’s why to this day the reindeer has no tail to this day.

So believe in Father Christmas, believe in yourself, believe in your dreams, and believe in your big, bigger, biggest vision.

I’m all lost in the supermarket: unexpected item in the bagging area.

Everywhere you go, the emphasis is on self-service. Self-assessment tax returns, self check-in at the airport, ATMs to get your cash and pay-at-pump for petrol. You can even attempt to diagnose your own medical symptoms on NHS Direct before you go to Boots claiming to have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and asking for a plaster, but be prepared for their computer to ask another computer for a second opinion. Then of course, there is the self-service supermarket scan-and-pay.

On Saturday I wandered into my local supermarket. Having completed my shopping, and remembering to bring my own carrier bags, I was presented with a checkout choice: go for the human option and have your shopping catapulted down a fast moving conveyor belt faster than you can see or catch it, or go solo and try to do a bit of DIY with the self-service scanner. Looks easy enough. But don’t be fooled. Those checkout ladies, who didn’t make it as far as X-Factor, have had years of practice. As has that posh lady who says Checkout Number 4 please. Let’s go self-service. Here’s my log:

It’s my contribution to saving the planet. I open my plastic carrier bag, clip the handles on the metal fingers, smooth it out so stuff goes in more easily. Unexpected item in bagging area. What? A carrier bag in the bagging area! Wait for assistant to approach with barcode crib sheet, which she scans to acknowledge the alarm. Scan product: brought own carrier bag. So far, so good. Scan first product. Alarm goes off: approval needed in a stentorian tone.

Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge I’m old enough to buy bottle of Pinot Grigio. Put wine in bag. Loose items: Please look up item: Ok, I have parsnip, does ‘P’ come after ‘M’ in the alphabet?’ I begin to sweat as the concept of the alphabet deserts me. Blip. In the bag. No alarm. Clenched fist. Get in.

Scan box of anadins. Alarm goes off: approval needed. Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to acknowledge (again) that I’m old enough to buy this item, just in case I got younger since last time. But she’s busy helping another innocent victim on the adjacent self-service lottery till. Get bored of waiting: ask another assistant to help. Sorry I don’t have authorisation. Give a look of genuine sympathy at the untrusted member of staff. She scurries off.

Wait while the flustered assistant waves her all-powerful barcode card to acknowledge that the thirteen-year-old kid next to me can buy Grand Theft Auto V. Despite clearly being underage. Assistant eventually acknowledges my alarm. Scan second box of anadins. Alarm goes off. Wait for assistant to approach with barcode sheet to cancel alarm. It doesn’t stop. She tells me you can’t buy more than one of these at the self-service tills. Why not? You just can’t. We’ve run out, do you think I’m going to kill myself by buying two boxes of anadin? One box will kill me if I’m determined and drink all the wine I just bought to go with it. She stares at me like I’m Jimmy Saville reincarnated.

Shake head, put second box aside while she cancels the alarm. Scan bread, reduced price. Wrong price appears. Barcode blindness. Wait for assistant to figure out how to get the right price up. She can’t. Wait for a trusted supervisor to approach and stab screen impatiently. Repeatedly swiping, running the risk of repetitive strain injury and I’m feeling a pang of sympathy for those who do this for a living. I tell her to cancel the item instead. I’ll go without bread; it would be tainted anyway with the stench of technological and human ineptitude.

It’s all about barcodes. No code – no can do. You might recognise the item as a melon and so might the friendly human supervisor who has to guard the self-checkout area. It might even say the word ‘melon’ on a sticker on it and even have the price printed on it, but all that makes no difference. Without a barcode it might as well be an alien spacecraft (by the way, special offer: 2 for £99 million at Asda, right now until next Sunday).

The man next to me, who looked like a student (beard, obviously no sleep, holding a placard about student loans) seemed to have a system. He weighed a mango but when it asked what the item was, he put potato. Clever. Provided he had done his sums correctly and a mango cost more than a potato, pound for pound. A certain amount of trust is, after all, involved already. When I confessed to having bought loose bananas, the screen asked me how many, and I duly entered nine, the correct number. I could so easily have halved it and put four and a half: nobody checked.

Alone again with the nemesis machine. It taunts me until I figure out which of the seven flashing orifices accept debit cards. A right palaver of paying. Get the hell out of the store and swear never to use the machines. Ever. Again. Driving away, unexpected item in the bagging area in a tone of voice like a truculent teenager is ringing my ears. If I hear that phrase one more time I’m going to hunt down the person who invented self-service checkouts and put an unexpected item in their bagging area.

Now self-service checkouts are expanding throughout the UK, but many of us aren’t happy with them. New research suggests 48% of Britons think self-service checkouts are a nightmare, neither quick nor convenient. Quite the opposite in fact, and their complaints are all too familiar. First introduced in the UK in the 1990s, the number of self-service checkouts is set to double in the next few years. This is because they offer supermarkets quick cost savings and in today’s economic and highly competitive retail climate, they see that to be a good thing.

Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket, also leads the do-it-yourself checkout league, with self-service counters in 256 stores. The tills process 25% of all transactions in those shores. Sainsbury’s has them in 220 stores and is planning more.  Waitrose offers a variation on the theme – it has no such tills but has a Quick Check service via a handheld device where people scan and pack items as they shop.

The aim is to really cut back on time at the till, but I’m not sure it’s what I want. In the past shopping was all about personal service at the corner shop, but over the years it has become more and more impersonal. From grocery shops, to supermarkets, to shopping on the Internet and now the expansion of self-service tills, face-to-face time has been reduced or even excised completely from the shopping experience. Are we becoming anti-social?

Customer service, it then seems, is completely lost when it comes to self-service checkouts.  Such advancements show they’re only looking inwards at their own cost structure, reducing staff, and not outwards at customer service or benefits. The only staff you see are those who are rushing around trying to keep the machines in order, if they have to assist you in any way it is normally by simply swiping their own access card over the till to unfreeze the machine, they have no time to provide any form of customer service because they are busy completing the job that was once done by several members of staff.

In some settings it works. The Oyster card system and London Underground ticket machines have benefited both customers and business. Large numbers of passengers can pay to travel quickly in an environment where space and time is limited. The technology here is pretty reliable and those using it at the busiest times are often regular travellers, therefore well versed in how to use the machines. At 8am at a busy station I’m happy to admit that machine beats man.

Before long, perhaps, the Pinot Grigio glitch will be overcome by fitting the machines with a biometric facial recognition device that can tell, by the number of wrinkles on your face, or even the world-weary look in your eyes, that you are of alcohol-buying age, and indeed are a regular purchaser of alcohol too!

So where will it all end? Soon we’ll be slicing our own bacon and baking our own bread too? Supermarkets seem to be pushing ahead with the self-scan tills because it suits them rather than their customers. They need to pay increasing attention to the experience they provide in-store to ensure they do not drive consumers away.

There is something I find completely Zen about supermarkets. Wandering up and down the aisles, pushing the cart in front of me, and slipping into some kind of zone where all I think about are the labels and colours around me. It clears my head and I find it strangely relaxing. But the technology drives me mad – forget the pesky self-service scanners, it’s hard enough just getting the automatic doors at the supermarket to open to acknowledge my existence.

During the last 30 years supermarkets have been a dominant force in transforming what we eat, how we shop, how our food is produced, our high streets and our countryside, and you can argue that many of the changes have been for the worse because of the ideology of the supermarkets and what they have planned for us: the total retailing experience.  It’s a paradigm shift away from personal choice to the mass market one-size-fits-all, but there is an emerging model, mass markets of one, where every individual customer is a market of one – in other words, from creating standardised value through mass production to creating customer-unique, personalised value through mass customisation – the iTunes and Amazon retail model.

This means moving from pushing products to fulfilling individual needs, from focusing solely on market share to measuring customer share, and from marketing to the masses to cultivating learning relationships with each customer. In response to decades of marketing overload, consumers have adapted the way they absorb information. Today’s consumer hears an operator on the phone or glances at a piece of mail and decides in an instant whether it has value. Messages not immediately identifiable to the individual are promptly cast off into a sea of irrelevant clutter.

As the customer has evolved, so must your business. Companies need to move away from the traditional mass marketing practice of blanketing everyone with the same message and start connecting with consumers on an individual basis. The dysfunctional self-service till isn’t helping build any semblance of customer intimacy, rather the opposite in creating a negative personal experience.

We’ve reached an age where technology can bring businesses and customers closer together. By improving the quality of their experience, customers will form a stronger bond with your organisation and, as a result, increase your profit potential. But if so many shoppers need help when using self-service tills, retailers need to be looking at the technology and the way it’s presented to the consumer. If so many people need help, it’s not helpful.

Buying ordinary products in a supermarket puts me in touch with my deepest emotions. I get so excited when I see food, I go crazy. I spend ages arranging my trolley so that everything fits in and nothing gets squashed. Once you’ve reached the point where you can pay rent, you can go to the vet and you can go to the supermarket, after that point it’s all the same. I don’t have the appetite for a decadent lifestyle.

But with these self-service tills, I’m all lost in the supermarket, I can no longer shop happily. I’m tuned into the 3 for 2 offers, and save coupons from packets of tea, but I left my soul somewhere between the aubergines and the pre-packed salads as fear of those tills is greater than the daleks created when I was aged seven.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

In the summer time when the weather is high, You can stretch right up and touch the sky… Mungo Jerry, In the Summertime, from Summer 1970. July 2013, a swelteringly hot week has made me nostalgic for the school holidays and that tune. I miss being a kid. The long days of nothing to do that became filled with so much, the feeling of freedom as it began, the rush to squeeze every last drop out of it as the days wound down.

Some of my strongest childhood memories are from summer, and although some are more than 40 years in my past, there are certain sensations that I remember clearly to this day. There were always bike jaunts. I remember the sound of the cardboard flap I snapped onto my bike spokes to sound like a revving motorbike; my summers were spent being Tarzan, we had jungles in the woods, we swung across streams hanging onto ropes of dubious provenance.

We went to the North Wales beaches, staying with Grandparents. They would get out of the car, put the folding chairs out in front of it and barely move all day, while my sister and I spent the day running between them, across the beach, into the sea and back again. The picnic was always a feast. On one visit I irritated my sister and she responded by stuffing sand into my mouth. The grains of sand took days to leave my mouth.

Three years stand out. Hitting my head falling off the roundabout at Butlins in 1967, nearly drowning in Lydstep Haven in 1972 and in balmy 1976, my dad winning a bet by successfully frying an egg on our doorstep. Oh the nostalgia, it makes us a bit more human.

Nostalgia, a longing to return home, is a word that comes from the Greek nostos (to return home) and algo (pain or ache), was coined by C17th-century Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer as a label for the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. The Kuhreihen, simple melodies played on the horn by Swiss Alpine herdsmen, were banned because it reminded the soldiers of home, although some military doctors believed their problems were specific to the Swiss and caused by the racket of Alpine cowbells!

I’m comfortable with nostalgia, sometimes a little wistful, but I see nostalgia as passing history forward – it’s not just reliving the past, but thinking about how events in that past affected where I am today. Nostalgia has a strong social side to it. It engenders feelings of belonging. As a son, husband and dad, I feel closer and happier when sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.

I think back to one particular summer photo that is embedded in memory, and still in my collection, of me aged 16 outside a caravan in Cornwall, taken by a Polaroid camera that I received as a birthday gift. My long arms look as though my body has yet to grow into them. I remember that camera like it was yesterday: a big bulky plastic thing that you loaded up with film so expensive that you had to be selective about what you shot. Now people shoot gazillion photos with low-cost digital.

The marketing of nostalgia is serious business. In the last couple of years, when the credit crunch squeezed and with uncertainty about the economy, big brands have been marketing nostalgia to remind us of all the good times we used to have, full of rose-tinted happiness. In doing so, they have been reinforcing their history and heritage, their products’ endurance and quality, their authenticity.

The reason that nostalgia is now being considered as an important emotion by marketers is because it makes us happy. In times or recession or instability nostalgia is effective because when people are feeling down about their situation now, nothing makes them feel better than remembering the happier times in the past. Numerous studies confirm that most consumers really do look back on the past with rose-tinted glasses and an open wallet for any product that can help them recreate it. Products popular during a person’s youth will influence their buying habits throughout their lifetime. That explains my Ramones t-shirt!

Nostalgia can add significant value to brands that have the opportunity to tap into the heritage of the brand, consider Harley Davison, Mini, Fiat 500, Volkswagen Beetle, retro styling of digital radio brands etc. Nostalgic, iconic brands have defined Britain for years, some remain as strong as they were when they were founded: Hovis (1886), Marmite (1902), Brasso (1905), Bisto (1908), to name a few, have all stood the test of time.

Most importantly, it must have an emotional link The word ‘brand’ derives from the Old Norse word brandr meaning to burn, referring to the practice of burning a mark or brand onto cattle to denote ownership. It is this indelible mark in our mind that makes us prefer certain brands.

Lyle’s Golden Syrup is Britain’s oldest brand. Its green and gold packaging has remained almost unchanged since 1885. Research indicates that more than 85% of us immediately recognise the brand. Its original Victorian logo representing a lion and bees, coupled with its biblical quotation out of the strong came forth sweetness, has stood the test of time. It harks back to the great industrial times of the late C19th, a time we respect and value.

Bisto is another example. Trusted, reliable, and found in most kitchen cupboards across the country, the brand has remained in red-brown packaging since it was founded in 1908. An astonishing billion servings are sold each year, which equates to 18,000 tons of the brown powder. Lashings of piping hot gravy is a nostalgic memory for us all, an emotional link utilising its comforting values and association with family gatherings.

One of the most famous examples of ‘advertising nostalgia’ is the mammoth 122-second TV commercial from Hovis. The advert won the British Television Awards ‘Commercial of the Year’, told the story of a young boy travelling through time charting Britain’s turbulent history over the past 122 years – including the first world war, the suffragette movement, the first motor car, the second world war, the Queen’s coronation in 1953, the swinging 60s, England winning the 1966 World Cup, the 1980s miners’ strike and the millennium celebrations.

The advent of social media has seen the digitisation of memory and to some extent, the zombification of nostalgia as the intimacy has been lost by the immediacy and mass broadcast of personalised experience. Essentially the digital camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality. Virtually limitless storage has created a vast, noisy digital canvas that masks memory with too many pixels.

Anything that affects us at an emotional level today is exhaustively mined for commercial reasons, intensified with digitisation and new media. Today’s hottest consumer tech brands take it to an algorithm and machine-driven new heights. Your Kodak moment just got cropped, tagged, filtered, published, shared, liked and stored forever. Great for memory, not so good for nostalgia.

This is the endgame, packaging the past as the future and selling our memories back to us, one byte at a time. Etsy, Pinterest and Instagram all combine a pre-digital activity (scrapbooking, photography, handicrafts) with a social platform. How sophisticated is Nostalgia Innovation? Pinterest was the fastest brand to hit 10 million visitors, averages 89 minutes per visitor, and has become a significant source of referral traffic for retailers, and has yet to scratch the surface of its database of individual our tastes, interests and favourite brands. Facebook is now following the Google advertising model, but based on personalisation.

It is well over a decade since the philosopher Jean Baudrillard argued that reality itself had been fundamentally altered by a mediatised world, that there was no objective reality anymore, only a reproducible simulacrum, the nature of which is determined by large-scale corporations in the digital space. We no longer retain our own nostalgia.

But enough wallowing in nostalgia, it can create inertia. Why do we resist clearing out the unused and unusable accumulations in our files, our lofts and sheds? Why are we saving books we will never read? Life’s clutter builds up over time and we stuff it into the space under the stairs and into the dark corners of the attic.

Into my sixth decade now, I find that the present interests me less and less. Of course, the future continues to preoccupy me as a reliable source of excitement, hope and new stuff, but increasingly the present seems to have no outstanding qualities of its own, being merely a waiting-station through which I travel to the vast shadowlands of the past and the bright new shiny future.

Perhaps the reason I feel quite so liberated from the present while more and more attached to an ever-present past is because the hard drive of my computer is overloaded with digital images of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met, all of them time-coded. There is also an email trail leading back years, comprised of thousands of ephemeral traces. I can employ a few keystrokes and correlate my personal recollection of what was happening on that day, at that very hour, where I was in Burnley, Barcelona or Brisbane.

Because of this, instead of curling photographs and yellowing newspapers, we are possessed of a shiny and permanent now, and so delude ourselves as to our own eternal youth – until, that is, we look down at the wrinkled and liver-spotted hands that rest on the keyboard! However, the trend for social media is definitely faster and faster; as we spend a greater amount of time editing and narrating our own lives, we’re more self-absorbed and prefer a twitter soundbite to a long letter.

Some of our relationships are entirely Skype-chat. That’s cool, technology lets you do some new stuff, and maintain contact with a lot of people that otherwise would’ve fallen by the wayside a long time ago.

Business is about trust and reliability, and you can leverage those in a brand story using nostalgia. Being innovative doesn’t have to project a cold and futuristic image, you can link it into old-fashioned ingenuity like many brands have done. It is a paradox of technological advances such as the internet and the proliferation of TV channels enable us to wallow in the past.

The Chinese definition of happiness is having someone to love, something to do and something to look forward to. I’m happy. But back to my youth, and as the Buzzcocks sang, About the future I only can reminisce, and although this may sound strange I’m surfing on a wave of nostalgia, for an age yet to come. Another hot summer day beckons, we’ll be nostalgic for the summer of 2013 in ten years time. Now, where is my bike?

Life as a Yahoo!, from Gulliver’s Travels to Mayer’s Travails

In Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels, the Yahoo!s are a degraded band of humanoids kept tethered in stalls by their equine captors.

Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s CEO, recently banned telecommuting for her humanoids, and the tethering of C21st Yahoo!s to their desks in the company’s offices has created much debate on management and leadership of today’s digitally enabled workforce.

Her egregious work here or leave dictat was perhaps overly blunt, but the news triggered a broader discussion about how !much freedom workers should be given to decide where to spend their working hours.

The news of Mayer’s ban on telecommuting surfaced in the form of a memo to employees leaked to All Things D, a tech-industry blog, and unleashed a frenzied debate in the blogosphere. Supporters saw it as the brave act of a boss determined to rid the company of slackers. Critics lambasted the firm for an antediluvian attitude towards the workplace.

That Mayer should want to extract some more value from the humanoids she leads is clear – Google’s workers each generate $931k revenue, 160% more than the $354k produced by each of Yahoo!’s employees. And it is also reasonable for a company to want to discourage its employees from behaving like freelancers, after all, firms exist largely because people are more productive together than apart.

However, plenty of evidence suggests that letting folks telecommute is good for productivity. It allows them to use their time more efficiently and to spend more time with their families and less fuming in traffic jams or squashed on trains. The anti-Mayer reaction however, seems to have focused solely on employee productivity and ‘modern management’, and not considered two equally important elements of successful businesses – creating the right culture, and employee engagement.

Telecommuting can reduce company costs, Cisco claimed it saved $277m in 2009 by allowing its people to work from home, and a growing body of evidence suggests it helps productivity, too. A recent study by academics at Stanford University and the University of Beijing reports the results of an experiment at CTrip, an online travel company quoted NASDAQ.

The firm split some of its call-centre workers into two teams. One team worked at home for nine months; the other in the company’s offices. At the end of the period, the research found the telecommuters had handled calls more efficiently, taken fewer breaks and had been 13% more productive than their peers. Job satisfaction was also much higher among the homeworkers.

Hardly surprising, since a lot of people don’t seem to work while they are at work: In 2012 J.C. Penney discovered that a third of its headquarters’ bandwidth was taken up by employees watching YouTube videos.

As someone who has worked in professional services and IT companies for 25 years, I have mixed feelings about working from home. Most problems and the big questions are resolved by small groups of people in a room working together in a huddle, they create a buzz and energise each other. In my experience, people that join in meetings on Skype tend to get distracted and are not fully engaged, and then ignored by the people in the room.

To contradict this, when I do work from home, I am undoubtedly more personally productive – I reckon it equates to 15-20 more hours a week. Add to that the time saved commuting and talking to the dog instead – we’re talking about significant savings and being more energised.

However, home working requires self-discipline on the part of the employee, a quality that’s become endangered in this age of distractions. That fridge looks tempting. Again, to counter this, given that many technology firms produce the devices and software that make working from home a breeze, it seems sensible to let their employees use them.

Why then, has Mayer put telecommuting on hold at Yahoo!? The leaked memo said the habit has slowed the firm down and made it harder to have serendipitous meetings that can give birth to new ideas. Yet plenty of innovative technology firms move fast while allowing some people to work from home. You can shackle a Yahoo! to her desk, but you can’t make her feel the buzz.

Organisations by definition are groups of people and working from home dilutes that dynamic. I think it’s possible to have a productive workforce that works from home but my point is that it is much harder to create the same buzz and culture of a winning team despite all the technology that we have at our disposal these days.

All this in a week when two of my clients changed their homeworking policy – one called time and recalled everyone back into the office, citing the need for face-time, creating a culture, greater collaboration and serendipity – ‘stuff happens’; the other company introduced a new home working policy. They took counter views on the impact of productivity.

There are also a number of workplace culture concerns that inevitably come with telecommuting territory. The C20th paternalistic ‘command and control’ environment is most certainly not the answer, but maybe Mayer got it right – you can’t fix a broken culture when people aren’t in the office together.

She has faced a great deal of criticism for her decision to end remote working despite the fact that many at the company acknowledged it was a big issue.  When an entire company’s struggling and needs to change its culture, you need their physical presence.

Camaraderie is built by working together. You wouldn’t have a rugby team and have the forwards and the backs working in separate gyms on their fitness or tactics. They might be fitter or better at their own drills, but they wouldn’t know how to work together. No one would argue that they would rather not have their best people in close proximity to their colleagues and all working together.

It’s also a mistake to focus on what’s being taken away. Mayer’s actually giving people something: the chance to help save the company. She wants the people who are truly committed, her best people, all in the same place at the same time helping to transform the company. It’s a call to arms: All Hands On Deck! Collaborate and connect to improve our business.

People are said to shape and share the organisation culture, yet at the same time they define the organisation culture. Derived from the Latin word colere – to build, to care for, to cultivate. Culture consists of various factors that are shared by a group that acts as an interpretive frame of behaviour.

There is a wealth of research and study on organisation culture, a few standouts relevant to this debate include:

– Hofstede identified five dimensions of culture, including individualism v collectivism, and the impact this has in terms of values people look after their own interest and not the organisation’s well-being.

– Deal & Kennedy identified culture as the way things are done around here, which is a great way of defining a practical view of the day-to-day role culture has on an organisation.

– Gerry Johnson described a ‘Cultural Web’, identifying a number of elements that influence culture, from the paradigm (organisation purpose and values), control systems (processes to monitor what is going on) through to structure (reporting lines and the way work flows through the business) to symbols, myths and rituals which convey the messages about what is valued within the organisation.

Of relevance to the Yahoo! debate, and for me the most relevant research on culture, comes from Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones. They reduced culture to two dimensions: sociability and solidarity: Solidarity is the degree to which people think together in the same ways, sharing tasks and mutual interests; sociability comes from mutual esteem and concern for one’s colleagues.

This captures the essence of an organisation being a tribe, a collection of people being together, for the common cause.

In bringing remote workers back into Yahoo!’s offices, Mayer took a page out of her former employer’s book – Google, where the corporate culture is much envied. The perks many Googlers cite as their favourites like free food are very office-centric, and you don’t see working from home on the list.

Google CFO Patrick Pichette laid out the company’s thoughts on the debate with a fairly direct response: How many people telecommute at Google?’ Our answer is: As few as possible. Googlers can work wherever they want, but are strongly encouraged to commute to an office. As for the rationale, Pichette responded: There is something magical about sharing meals, there is something magical about spending the time together, about noodling on ideas, about asking face-to-face ‘What do you think of this?’ These are the magical moments that we think at Google are immensely important in the development of our company, of your own personal development and building much stronger communities. 

Of course, there is no right or wrong answer, it’s each to their own and what works. If you do opt for telecommuting, I like practical steps outlined by Bob Kelleher in his book Louder Than Words. For example:

Link high engagement to high performance Don’t confuse engagement with satisfaction. The last thing you want is a team of satisfied but underperforming people. Kelleher defines engagement as the unlocking of employee potential to drive high performance. Set and reinforce high performance goals, ensure there is no’ ‘softening’ of expectations.

Engage team leaders first Studies show that if a team leader is disengaged, his/her employees are four times more likely to be disengaged themselves. Telecommuting creates a new dimension to the team leaders role, so ensure they are fully engaged themselves.

Focus on communication at all levels If you neglect to articulate a clear vision of the future, expect only a minimum of energy to make it happen. Successful leaders provide robust communication, built on clarity, consistency, and repetition. It always amazed me as a leader how many repetitions were required before everyone heard the message – with everyone in the office. With a dispersed organisation, communication is more vital then ever.

As Ian Hutchinson points out in his book People Glue, employee engagement is an investment we make for the future of our organisation’s productivity and performance. Most employees know what they don’t want, fewer know what they really do want. Is telecommuting the answer for uplifting engagement, and thus performance?

As far as engagement goes, the fish always rots from the head. Leaders need to be the catalyst to improving productivity and performance, but they can’t if their teams are not first engaged. Human relationships are the central nervous system of any organisation and being connected is key.

Maximizing team engagement and building a winning, team oriented culture are key to capturing that extra discretionary effort that separates winning businesses from losing ones. Individual talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships, as the saying goes. The strength of the team is each individual member, the strength of each member is the team.

On balance, I think I’m with Mayer on this one, I’m a social person and like to have people around me. Organisations exist only for one purpose: to help people reach ends together that they couldn’t achieve individually. As Henry Ford said: Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress, working together is success.

For me, the output of being together outweighs the upsides of telecommuting. Whilst I see the potential benefits for the individual, cost savings for the business and the availability of highly scalable technology, I’ve concluded that humans are simply too limited to function outside of a simple tribal setting. Facebook can’t replace face time.

Help, someone stole my business model! Lessons from the failure of HMV

The epidemic of High Street retail failures continues with the iconic HMV, having traded for 91 years, and with 239 stores, now in administration. HMV reported healthy, rising profits as recently as 2009, but it is no surprise the company has failed, having spent the last few years attempting to compete with cheaper on-line rivals and the supermarkets.

HMV was the last major music retailer in the UK, having seen all of its rivals – Virgin Megastores, Zavvi, Our Price, Music Zone – over the last decade. The decline of UK music retail reflects trends around the world, with the US lacking a major national music retailer since the closure of the Virgin Megastore chain in 2009. However, recent years has seen HMV concentrate increasingly on DVD sales, video games, books, consumer electronics and even clothing rather than music.

HMV began in the 1890s at the dawn of the gramophone. In 1921 they opened their first dedicated shop in Oxford Street, London and composer Edward Elgar participated in the opening ceremonies. I started buying music from HMV in the early 1970s, and after 20 years of CD purchasing I now have a fairly eclectic and sizable CD collection. And, just like HMV, it is close to being obsolete.

While many recent corporate failures have been due in part to the economy, HMV’s demise is a failure of its business model as the Internet took hold. Amazon and iTunes are able to compete at a price, and with a level of convenience and buying options that cannot be matched by a business that occupies expensive buildings with high fixed costs.

HMV represented a significant proportion of its market – some 40% of the high street ‘physical’ CD music market and 30% of the DVD market – but in the digital era where 73% of music and films are downloaded or bought online, HMV’s business model has become increasingly irrelevant and unsustainable. It demonstrates the emergence of more efficient, more effective technologies and business models for distributing music than traditional in-store retailers.

Online shopping and deliveries have cheapened and speeded up the process of acquiring physical music, providing specialisation, depth, and lower prices, in a way that HMV never could. Consumers who don’t need physical copies of music don’t need to wait for deliveries – they download from iTunes, the market leader, or any other online digital retailer.

That’s only if you desire to own music at all, as consumers are turning away from that model too, realising that there is no need to own music in order to listen to it. Spotify has surged in popularity, hitting 20 million users in December 2012.  HMV may have sold a wide range CDs for £5 in their regular monthly or weekly sales, but Spotify can let you listen to an enormous chunk of the music made throughout history for £5 a month. Against this business model, HMV can no longer effectively provide the services required of it.

HMV is the latest victim of “showrooming”, the practice of using a shop to browse and research, but buying from a cheaper online store later. With 20% of shoppers saying it was something they had done, and nearly half of those ending up buying elsewhere, nearly 10% of sales are walking out of the door as a direct result of ‘showrooming’ activities.

HMV looks like a prime victim, as almost their entire product line is easily found at lower prices via online retailers, and with reliable and often free next day delivery, there are no compelling reasons to pay more just to own it today – unless the digital download format is your preference where the purchasing experience is personal, instant and convenient.

By failing to invest in ecommerce, you could say HMV lost their customer twice – once when the customer decided they would switch their purchase behaviour from High Street to online, and again when that customer made a decision on which online retailer to buy from.

So could they have done anything differently? HMV had an inherent advantage with their links with the music industry and distributors. They could have built a unique online experience, offering a level of rich and exclusive content for music fans, which would have been unmatched by rivals. They could have been an early player in the download space, another behaviour change that they failed to read and react to.

The fundamental flaw in HMV’s business model is that they failed to understand and respond to changes in consumer shopping behaviour and the channels offered by newer, more agile rivals.  Only by investing in gaining a deep and insightful understanding of the shopping behaviours and preferences of your customers, can you design shopping experiences that keep them in your audience, physically or virtually.

It failed to adapt to what is an inherently digital business model. The online, digital and rental products and services pioneered by Apple, Amazon, Love-Film and Netflix slashed resource and distribution costs, developing delivery mechanisms for music that created a new market of downloading to devices – the convergence of the products and the business model, a new concept in the competitive landscape.

So how can we learn abut the demise of HMV’s business model, and look to our own business? A business model describes how an organisation creates, delivers and captures value for its customers. In their book Business Model Generation, Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur suggest a Business Model has nine building blocks:

  • Customer Segments: for whom are we creating value, who are our most important customers?
  • Value Propositions: what value do we deliver to the customer, which one of our customer’s problems are we solving, which needs are we satisfying?
  • Channels: through which channels do our customers want to be reached? Which are the most cost-efficient and work the best?
  • Customer Relationships: what type of relationship does each customer segment expect us to establish and maintain with them?
  • Revenue Streams: what value are our customers really willing to pay? For what do they pay? What are our different revenue streams?
  • Key Resources: what key resources do our value propositions require?
  • Key Activities: what key activities do our value propositions require?
  • Key Partners: who are our key partners, which key resources or activities do they perform?
  • Cost Structure: what are the most important costs inherent in our business model to our key resources and activities?

Alex Osterwalder ( developed this approach into the concept of the Business Model Canvas, follow this link:

Osterwalder’s premise is that companies that aren’t able to systematically rejuvenate their business model as industry boundaries change will struggle. Business model innovation is about new ways of creating, delivering and capturing value. It’s clear to see it’s a useful business strategy tool, to both analyse HMV, the new digital players, and indeed your own business – for example, ask yourself these four questions to construct your own business model canvas:

Why should customers be excited to do business with you? This is the value proposition. You could almost go as far as asking: Why should customers love to do business with you?

How do you create excitement for your customers in a productive way? This is the value architecture or operating model. Here you describe how you fulfil your value proposition.

How do you earn money? This is your revenue model or the profit formula and here you should be able to explain why you can earn revenue.

What are your values you live with your customers? That is the human side of the business and of utmost importance since it is the most difficult part for rivals to copy. The culture and values of a business are unique.

For each of these questions, you need compelling answers, but do not get lost in the detail, look at the broader picture and see the interdependencies.  If you can answer the questions you have a great strategy that is customer-oriented, profitable and sustainable.

HMV shows that a business has to be fast and flexible in meeting its customers’ needs, including how the customer chooses to interact with you, and the format of product offering. A great example of a traditional company that has adapted to the times is Auto Trader, the car sales magazine that has moved online and has still retained its market leading position, demonstrating its ability to meet its customers’ demand for online search.

The general consensus is that HMV failed because it was wedded to its old business model and the sheer problems of scale. Even a giant the size of HMV cannot hold back the tide of changing consumer preference – and it is therefore vital that you listen to your customers and incorporate their wishes into the very heart of your business model.

The new format of the music product, new purchasing channels and new means of consuming meant that the focus was on the product and may have taken away the focus on the user – something which has been distinctive in Apple’s growth. The disruption to the cost model was also missed from HMV’s business model. A parallel here is newspapers, who regard the enemy to their business model as ‘the internet stealing our content’ – when in fact they should be more troubled by the changing demographics of a society that simply wants to pay less for news than it once did, and is now used to 24/7 free access. At the same time, we all need a bank account but don’t necessarily need a branch, which is why on-line banking has disrupted the banking market and become so successful.

A business model describes how an organisation creates, delivers and captures value for its customers, look at the lessons to be learned from the demise of HMV and other retail trends:

  • Give the customer more control – make is personal. A study by CISCO showed 75% of shoppers want a personalised experience – but only if they authorise it. HMV could not create this in their business model
  • Create richer experiences – online means not having to queue in long checkout lines, and the iTunes model of listening to tracks for free and then purchasing only selected items is awesome – again HMV could not compete
  • Enable self-service – Adidas has an inventory problem, it has 450 different trainer shows to sell, but retailers only stock 10-30 in each store. With the help of Intel’s Virtual Footwear Wall – one of the leading products in the emerging ‘endless aisle’ category – walk-in customers can now see the full range.

All business success rests on something labelled a sale, which at least momentarily weds company and customer. As Peter Drucker said, a business exists to create a customer, so make sure your business model is customer centric.

Forget about the price tag, it’s not about the money

Anyone who lives in Burnley, a humble, honest industrial northern town, feels a warm glow of familiar nostalgia whenever they see the towering stands and floodlights of the football ground amidst the rows of terraced housing. Turf Moor has been the home of Burnley FC since 1883, a landmark in the town. Everyone connects with the club, it’s a reference point for giving visitors directions, and the heartbeat of the town on match days. Walking by the ground yesterday, as always it stirred memories of games gone by.

There were wandering friendly dogs, a teenage couple snogging ferociously on the steps of the pub, old men in overcoats and flat caps, and the local chippy opening up for dinner time customers. But it was the giant hording outside the ground that caught my attention: ‘Next game: Burnley v Wolverhampton Wanderers’, broadcasting a call-to-arms.

Although classified as a fan, I am a ‘customer’ of football in a business sense, but it’s not that straightforward. It’s more than 90 minutes. Football has a unique relevance in a fan’s life, building heroes in our minds when we are young, and that never leaves us – more so in a week when John Connelly died, playing 265 games, scoring 105 goals for Burnley in the 1960s. We have detailed, indexed memories of previous seasons results and games, and live in hope about a great winning run just around the corner. Football is an ever-present beacon of unfounded optimism in our lives.

If you’re a fan of a football team you go to their matches and your support is unconditional – it isn’t based on the likelihood of victory, your position in the table or how much you have to pay – however, the average cost of the cheapest adult ticket in the top four divisions of English football has risen by 11.7% – more than five times the rate of inflation. The BBC Sport Price of Football survey recently found that the average price of the most affordable ticket has gone from £19.01 to £21.24 in the past year. The figures showed the most expensive adult match day ticket was Arsenal at £126, and Arsenal also have the most expensive season ticket at £1,955. Meanwhile, the most expensive tea in British football is in Manchester, where both City and United charge £2.50.

While Premier League grounds are over 95% full, teams are struggling to sell tickets where previously this wasn’t an issue. The recent Tottenham v Chelsea match, one of the biggest games of the season, saw tickets on general sale. With money tight and high-profile matches on Sky, the inclination not to attend and watch games on TV instead may increase. With the latest Sky deal seeing a 70% increase in revenue for Premier League teams, the number of Sky subscriptions is probably of more importance to clubs than selling out home games. Arsenal earned £56m last season from broadcasting revenue – do they really need to risk alienating their ‘customers’ and charge £126 for a ticket?

There is a belief that football fans are very loyal to their clubs, rain or sunshine they will be there for it, but research shows the assumption of deep loyalty to the game is far from the truth. Dr Alan Tapp, at the University of West England, undertook research about fan loyalty. The results shattered the assumption of fan’s undying loyalty. He found the game has ‘fanatics’, ‘repertoire football lovers’ (just love the game) and ‘carefree casuals’. The fanatics will attend every game and know everything about their team. The repertoire fans go to enjoy football if they can (they see the game as an entertainment option) and the casual carefree will support from afar, just waiting for results.

This research tells us that football customers cannot be categorised in the traditional business sense, because their loyalty does not purely depend on success of their team, or the quality of games, but in the same breath it can not be taken for granted if their team struggles. The fans do not stop supporting the team, they simply withdraw their custom and become armchair fans, from the TV or Internet. But football is not similar to other businesses as this custom is not transferable to another team.

So, who are the customers – match day fans or Sky subscribers? The Sky TV money feeds the mouths of the elite, yet there are as many supporters of clubs in the English professional game outside of the Premier League, as there are in the Premier League. Yet the conclusion is this: Premier League teams don’t need the revenue from fans, such is the quantum of the Sky money. The customers that built the clubs are no longer important, yet are vital to creating a match day atmosphere, the essence of the 90 minutes and as for Burnley, the heart and soul of the town.

The threat that a generation of fans may miss out on the experience of attending live football due to price appears to be a real one. This is an example of a common mistake in understanding pricing. A business does not lower the costs of one product because another is selling for more. It will always charge whatever it takes to maximise revenue from that product/market segment. However, if charging more and attracting fewer fans brings in more revenue than a full stadium at a lower price, that’s what they’ll do.

This approach is short sighted. Clubs may continue to do well from current supporters but their numbers will decline, and it needs to create new customers to ensure long-term stability. Despite the eye-watering Sky TV-deal monies, only 10 clubs in British football remain profitable as player wages have spiraled. I think the pricing in place will prevent the next generation from enjoying live football. As it is, it will become a sport in which relatively well-off people will be able to go and watch it live and nobody else. That seems to me to be a tragic historic reverse of ‘the working man’s game’.

For many fans, the football brand is a passion. Due to their cultural ties and emotional appeal, football clubs generate significant brand loyalty, seen on the streets via replica shirts and scarves, a display of allegiance to their club. It is evident that football without fans wouldn’t be the sport that it is today. Fans, as customers, are the historical base of a club’s economic model and should not be taken for granted, they fill up stadiums, buy merchandise, and attract sponsorships. The club’s highest value customers are those who build their lifestyle around the club’s identity and attend matches. Long-term oriented relationships are crucial in the football industry.

Sky’s injection of cash is only funding the elite, what happens to the rest? What are the industry’s pricing options? Marco Bertini from the London Business School and John Gourville from Harvard Business School identified five pricing principles that the committee organising the London 2012 Olympic Games adopted, facing an extraordinary business challenge: How to price 8 million tickets in a way that gives equitable access to 26 sporting events, meets revenue and attendance targets, and adheres to the explicit social objective of making the Olympiad Everybody’s Games?

To accomplish this, the committee took what Bertini & Gourville call a ‘shared-value’ approach to pricing, looking beyond the mechanics of ‘running the numbers’ and recognising the way to generate revenue can open up opportunities to create additional value. That means viewing customers as partners in pricing options, based on value creation, a collaboration that increases customers’ engagement and taps their insights about the value they seek and how firms could deliver it. The result is benefits for firms and customers alike. This is clearly a pricing model for the football industry. By studying the 2012 Games and the pricing process, they determined five pricing principles that every business could profitably adopt:

Focus on relationships, not on transactions
Ticketing and pricing is the most visible aspect of your relationship with your audience. The solution was to value customers more than their money. First, they increased the number of pricing tiers, which kept some ticket prices low while still hitting revenue targets. Second, it offered a pay-your-age pricing plan for young customers and discounted tickets to those over 60. Third, for the opening ceremony it chose high and low price points – £20.12 and £2,012, whose symbolic rationale everyone understood.

Be proactive There was no bundling of tickets to a more popular sport with those to a less popular sport, a tactic sometimes used in previous Olympics to increase ticket sales and boost attendance at the less popular events. Ticketing of every sport stood on its own, creating 26 different pricing plans detailing how tickets should be sold to the appropriate market demand. The committee did bundle public transport into the ticket price, recognising the opportunity to reduce traffic congestion and add customer value.

Put a premium on flexibility The committee had to price all events more than a year and a half in advance of the Games, before it had a clear understanding of demand. Besides increasing the number of price tiers across events, it also promised more expensive tickets would have a better view of the event. In the spring of 2011, fans placed requests for tickets through an online ballot, revealing how much they were willing to pay for various events. This allowed the committee to gauge demand at each price point and reallocate some seats accordingly. By not predetermining the number of seats in each tier, the committee had the flexibility to better satisfy actual rather than anticipated demand, which resulted in more seats sold and happier customers.

Promote transparency One of the explicit goals in pricing the Games was to limit negative media attention. From early on, a continuous flow of information about the rationale and process of ticketing, key dates in the ticketing time line, price tiers and the number of tickets available, were communicated. At times the systems didn’t work and there was some bad publicity, but at least the openness prevailed.

Manage the market’s standards for fairness From the moment the ticketing process began, the committee communicated the pay-your-age and senior discounts and the percentage of tickets that would be sold at £20, at or below £30, and so on. The committee rejected any suggestion to auction the tickets in highest demand, instead, ticket allocation was enabled via a simple lottery, reinforcing that there was no preferential treatment.

Shared-value pricing is a new and evolving strategy, but given the fundamental shifts in consumers’ power and expectations, customers will have dwindling patience for traditional pricing. Considering the benefits to be gained by increasing the pool of value in the marketplace and sharing it with customers, any firm that is not evaluating its pricing through a shared-value lens should ask whether it can afford not to. Furore over the price of Rolling Stones tickets, the latest round of Energy price rises, the growth in price-comparison web sites shows how pricing has a high profile, and how the social networks quickly chatter.

What I can tell you is the feeling I get at Turf Moor as a customer is indescribable. I get this feeling in my stomach which I never want to go away. I get this sudden rush which makes me feel like I can take on the world and win! And hearing ‘Come on Burnley!’ roared by 15000 people brings a lump to my throat every time. You can feel the emotion of everybody in the ground, you know they mean every word. No amount of Sky money contributes to this part of my customer experience.

At it’s core football is a social activity. Football originally resonated with people because it tugged at our local tribal instincts – Us versus Them. Nowadays that has been lessened but football has the same power to exhilarate. You can’t put a price on that.

Customer loyalty means nothing if you don’t have loyalty from your leaders

Buy any six cups of our freshly ground full-bean coffee and get your seventh cup free. Sky Rewards, exclusive for Sky customers, 2 for 1, tickets to the UKs’ top attractions. Up to 25% off your line rental, for life. McDonalds, Sky and Orange – their current loyalty offers, and now eBay is to start offering loyalty points to its customers – the online marketplace giant has signed up as a member of the Nectar loyalty programme allowing holders of the loyalty card to collect points when they spend money with eBay.

The launch is one of three new partnerships announced by Nectar as it marks a decade in business. The scheme has also teamed up with Oxfam and restaurant group Tragus, owner of Bella Italia, Café Rouge and Strada restaurants, to offer points when purchases are made. For years we’ve become accustomed to living in a fast-paced dog-eat-dog world, told that loyalty gets you nowhere, and that we must look out for number one, because no one else will. Now in business there is a scramble on with customer loyalty schemes.

In our youth, loyalty was easy, you stood by and stuck up for your friends. You kept their secrets, you made sure that no one bullied your younger brother. As adults, loyalty is not nearly so simple. We operate in a network of overlapping loyalties. Some are trivial or temporary, others provide the foundation to our very identity. Paradoxically, while we all value loyalty in our friends, our sense of what loyalty actually means tends to be vague.

Dogs are famously loyal, but that’s not loyalty really, that’s obedience. But I’m loyal back to my dog, that’s what matters. Loyalty is about accepting the bonds that our relationships with others entail, and acting in a way that defends and reinforces the attachment inherent in these relationships. Harley-Davidson is commonly cited as having one of the most loyal following of any brand. A group called Harley Owners Group has more than 1 million members. These Harley enthusiasts regularly meet up for group rides. Going a step further, many loyal fans have the H-D logo permanently tattooed.

Jim Becker was a Green Bay Packer fan who attended NFL games for 56 years. Becker regularly sold his blood to offset the cost of season tickets for himself, his wife and 11 kids. Then Becker’s doctor found that his father died aged 43 from a condition of the blood retaining too much iron.  Donating blood is the only known treatment for this condition. Becker may have also died at a young age had he not given blood as a result of his loyalty to the Green Bay Packers.

Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, observed more than two thousand years ago: What is the quality to look out for as a warrant for the stability and permanence of friendship? It is Loyalty. Nothing that lacks this can be stable. The great works of literature are almost universally tales of loyalty and betrayal. To the ancient Greeks, a hero could not exist apart from loyalty. Tests of loyalty are the cornerstone of great drama, and we reserve our utmost contempt for the traitors who betray their loyalty for personal gain – a Judas!

Ah, Judas! News that manager Owen Coyle was sacked from Bolton Wanderers rekindles memories of one of the greatest acts of disloyalty and treachery known to mankind. Ok, I exaggerate, but it mattered to us Burnley folk. A lot. Whilst a 2-0 home victory in the opening game of this season versus Bolton was some solace, the second victory the returning turncoat/traitor/defector (delete which you think best applies), Coyle’s departure from Turf Moor back in January 2010 highlights the very essence of loyalty.

Think back three years ago. Burnley’s promotion to the Premier League – our first season in the top flight of English football since 1976 – was one for the romantics. Automatically installed as the favourites for relegation – as if people are incapable of even hoping to dream that anything other than exactly what we expect could happen. Then something happened. Burnley, playing attacking, attractive football and wearing a sumptuous kit based on their 1960 First Division championship winning team, started to win matches – and not just any matches.

August 19, 2009. Burnley 1 Manchester United 0. Burnley’s first goal in the Premier League was something very, very special. For you Robbie Blake, freedom of the borough of Burnley. The defending Premier League Champions. Beaten. I can still recall being awake at 3am that morning reading for the umpteenth time on the BBC web site the match report. It still said 1-0. Putting a man on the moon was now second in the Greatest Human Achievements In My Lifetime. And Coyle was the architect of that achievement.

Owen Coyle was receiving plaudits. Half way into the season the job was half done, we had a strong home record and batting well. We joked he’d turn down the Real Madrid job, such was his affinity with the club, the fans, the town – Sorry Senior Perez, can’t come to manage your Galacticos, we’ve got Wigan at home on Saturday. Then he went and blew it. January 2010, Bolton’s Fatty Arbuckle look-a-like, Phil Gartside, came calling, and Coyle swallowed his ‘greater potential at the Reebok’ line. It proved too much to resist. Bolton got their man.

Previously, Coyle said: The fans know the rapport I have with this football club. We have an exciting challenge ahead of us and I want it to continue. He had turned down an approach from his boyhood club Celtic: I’m a Celtic fan. But I looked at what we had built at Burnley, I thought of the players I’d persuaded to be part of this, and in the end I knew I had to stay and carry on this incredible adventure. Then in the winter, Coyle said: I don’t want it to continue. What changed in those six months? How did the loyalty dissipate so rapidly? Coyle gave me and 18,000 other Clarets the best 18 months in living memory. We dared to dream. An apparently decent, loyal man, his departure was a really grotty tale.

What did we learn about loyalty from Owen Coyle? Well, we learned that apparent authenticity, sincerity and honest personas count for nothing. He had said at a pre-match conference I enjoy being at the football club, I enjoy my work and coming through the door every morning. A week later, he was gone. It was the greatest act of disloyalty since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At Burnley, the world was his oyster. Alas Burnley were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the season, there was no recovery or happy ending. From Moses, leading us to the promised land, to Judas in the space of 18 months.

The lack of loyalty was mind-boggling, the turbulence he created led to our demise and collapse. His first game in charge, a dreary 0-0 at home to Stoke, was not a glimpse of things to come. He built a team based on togetherness, commitment and team spirit, and he got it back in lumps from the terraces.

But we shouldn’t have been surprised. Loyalty is dead, and the research statistics seem to bear them out: American companies lose half their customers in five years, half their employees in four, and half their investors in less than one. We seem to face a future in which the only business relationships will be opportunistic transactions between virtual strangers.  Josiah Royce in his 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty presented loyalty as a virtue, defined as the basic moral principle from which all other principles can be derived.  Without loyalty, you have nothing.

Animals as pets have a large sense of loyalty to humans, which may be more human-to-human loyalty. Famous cases include Greyfriars Bobby who attended his master’s grave for fourteen years, Hachiko, who returned to the place he used to meet his master every day for nine years after his death, and Foxie, the spaniel belonging to Charles Gough, who stayed by her dead master’s side for three months on Helvellyn in the Lake District in 1805. (The fact that Gough’s body was eaten by his dog was ignored in subsequent romantic accounts of the story).

There is now something about Coyle’s leadership and communication that doesn’t feel authentic, and it would be the same for any person who unravels sincerity in such unsubtle and spectacular fashion, a previously cast iron personal commitment to an organisation. In walking out of Burnley mid season, he showed himself to be an opportunist, self-interest before loyalty. I suppose this is fine if you succeed, but he didn’t. He placed a higher priority on personal financial gain, over loyalty, authenticity and integrity. It’s not a recipe for long-term success, and surely you tarnish your reputation forever with such behaviour. Trust, a core element of leadership, has been lost, how do you recover that, and respect?

Our ancestors learned that loyalty towards your tribe was a valuable survival tool. In the jungle, the desert, the cotton mills of industrial Lancashire, loyalty to your tribe increased your chances of surviving harsh weather, unreliable supply of food and water, and built the warmth of human togetherness, humanity and community. Now, please excuse me, but I’m soundly in the camp that Coyle has got his just deserts, while we wait with eager anticipation to watch him fall flat on either of those two faces. He let us down. As you sow, so shall you reap, as the plane flying over Turf Moor in the opening game versus Bolton trailed the banner through the skies. He made the wrong decision, and will be forever tainted by his lack of loyalty and ripping the heart out of Burnley, over shadowing his finest hour.

Coyle’s loyalty was a veil of rhetoric. He lead a team that had previosuly achieved stability and consistency, but no real chance of success, and turned us to something special. A manager in business would be lauded with such results. The images and emotions of the Wembley 2009 play-off final victory, and Martin Paterson’s and Steve Thompson’s goals in the 2-0 away win at Reading in the semi-final, will always be with me. That first home game versus Manchester United will never go away. This was our time. He created it, and his disloyalty dismantled it. The Burnley customers still came through the turnstiles and bought their annual season tickets, our own loyalty card. But without loyalty, honesty and trust, decency and dignity in the behaviour of your leaders, the heart and soul of any organisation will have a damaged, fractured culture that creates a destabilising vacuum with its customers. Three years on, it still rankles.

How we can learn from the authentic behaviour of dogs

I was at an RSPCA Summer Open Day a couple of weeks ago – well, the lure of a glass of home made lemonade and ginger cake for £1 on the chalked sign was too much to walk past, so I popped in out of the cold

My previous dog, a shaggy, doe-eyed bearded collie cross, was an RSPCA rescue dog, a more loving, loyal and hairy Wookie look-a-like hound you could not wish for, and I’ve been a sucker for supporting any dog sanctuary, stray or care charity ever since.

The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with her and not only will she not scold you, but she will make a fool of herself with you too. My current dog, Tess, a golden retriever, likes nothing more than a good play fight and cuddle, and next to my wife, she’s the best kisser ever. She’s also great at cleaning your ears. But let’s move on.

Dogs are miracles with paws, when they laugh they laugh with their tails, they share our lives in a way that most other animals can’t. Each evening Tess waits for me by the front door, face smiling, mouth open and tail wagging, ready to dote and barks for around twenty minutes to announce to the entire neighbourhood that I’m home from work.

Dogs’ lives are too short, their only fault really if you ignore the chewing of the occasional CD or loss of cakes from the carrier bag on the kitchen floor as you fetch the shopping in from Tesco. We all long for affection altogether ignorant of our faults, and we get such unconditional love from dogs that we take it for granted.

I think we are drawn to dogs because they are the uninhibited creatures we might be if we weren’t certain we knew better.  They fight for honour and territory, make themselves heard without inhibition when they need to, and self-clean body parts with no moral restraint. You would think that for all their marvellous instincts that they appear to know nothing about numbers, but if you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving Tess only two of them.

The most affectionate creature in the world is a wet dog, happy to share the entire experience, but in order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train her to be semi human.  The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming a dog. But enough about the dog, my reason for writing this blog was partly about the authentic behaviour of dogs, but really this blog came about because of a couple of books I bought at the RSPCA event.

Shouting out to me on the bookstall were two books by Dr. Harry Frankfurt – one On Truth, the other On Bullshit – two for £1 and my ace negotiating skills saw them tucked into my pocket and off home. One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit and lack of authenticity everywhere. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his or her share, but we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognise bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it.

So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern. We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves, and we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, as Harry Frankfurt writes, “we have no theory.”

Frankfurt, one of the world’s most influential moral philosophers, attempts to build such a theory. With a combination of philosophical acuity, psychological insight, and wry humour, Frankfurt proceeds by exploring how bullshit and the related concept of humbug are distinct from lying. He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Frankfurt has also written a wonderful book on Truth, aptly titled On Truth. He makes a compelling case for truth, not on moral grounds but using pure business logic. His argument in simple terms is that there is a huge cost to lying and that is to remember all the details of the lie. The moment they forget the details of their lies and slip, they are exposed and that will cost them even more. So they continue to pay the costs of remembering all their lies.

Gritty stuff from an RSPCA bookstall, but set against the honesty and sincerity you get from your dog, the polarity of dog behaviours when compared to some humans led me onto thinking more about authenticity. If only brands were as authentic as dogs.

Being authentic means that the gap between who you are and who you portray to be as close as zero as possible. In other words, being authentic means brining the ‘real you’ wherever you go, in every situation and conversation. You can look at it from a moral angle, but I’m particularly interested in making a business case for being authentic.

Let’s start with what happens when you are not authentic. You will start with creating an image of yourself that is different from who you really are. It takes an effort to do that. Now, you will have to act out that image and make everyone believe that what you act out is who you really are. It takes even more effort to fulfil that.

Once you act this out, you need to remember this image for a long time, Because you need to behave consistently with your image with all the people that have seen you portraying that image. That seems like a burden that you have chosen to carry to me.

We trust most people to be generally honest. Effective communication is built on trust, but most advertising is the opposite of authentic communication. You never see an ad that says ‘Our product is pretty decent, but overpriced!’ The sad part is that we all know it, and yet we choose to play along.

I’m away on holiday at present, at a beach & villa resort, and this lack of authenticity has quickly set the tone for my daily interactions with most of the resort staff. After a week of missing authentic communication with my dog, this a new theme that is becoming the cornerstone of everything I do. It all started with noticing how I greeted and responded to the resort staff.

It usually went something like this: Hey, how are you today. Good, you? Good. Alright, see ya later. Not only did I not really care about how the person was doing, I also played along with his fake enthusiasm, but it wasn’t just me! When other staff ask me How are you doing? they kept walking without waiting for an answer. How are you doing? has become the new Hi. Most people don’t really want to know, nor do they really mean it.

The idea is that we are interacting daily on a superficial level, but very few of us want to snap out of it and have a genuine conversation. Naturally, talking about authenticity made me hyper-aware of my own patterns and non-genuine conversations, and I tried to stay true and present at all times, even if it made for awkward situations. Trust in humanity will only continue if we cultivate authenticity and sincerity in face to face conversation.

Everyone is banging on about customer experience, customer engagement and customer loyalty, but the latest I reckon is customer romance. I say this as I was lashing on the Aloe Vera gel to my sunburned shoulders, the Holland & Barrett gel for bio active skin treatment was just the job, but the subtle we’re good for you struck me as an example of authentic branding.

Maybe an unfashionable brand, but a visit to their web site gave me ideas around customer romance as a strategy, the authenticity of their style of communication is contagious, and there’s no better way to connect with a customer than to be sincere, transparent and honest. We need authenticity now more than ever.

Compare this to a fitness video advertisement on American TV that is broadcast here: Here is a revolutionary fitness idea. Spend only seven minutes everyday and make a huge difference in your lives. Call in the next 30 minutes and we will send you two more minutes of video for FREE!

‘Authentic’ is derived from the Greek authentikós, which means ‘original’, but just being an original doesn’t mean your brand will be perceived as authentic. You could be an original phoney. At its heart, authenticity is about practicing what you preach; being totally clear about who you are and what you do best. When a brand’s rhetoric gets out of sync with actual customer experiences, the brand’s integrity and future persuasiveness suffers.

I’ve always admired BMW’s claim of being the ultimate driving machine,  which is constantly reinforced by the automotive press in head-to-head comparisons with Audi and Mercedes. According to those authoritative sources, it’s not a bullshit line. Which really is the bottom line on brand authenticity. Don’t BS people.

It’s a long way from the RSPCA, dogs, Harry Frankfurt, holiday resort staff, Holland & Barrett and a US get-fit TV commercial, but with time to think on holiday, business life is all about truth, no bullshit, and authenticity.  Lack of authenticity has a big price associated with it, when people observe the void they run away. It will never turn into a customer service issue. They just won’t become your customers. So, be the person your dog wants you to be when you get home: If it’s not the truth, it must be bullshit.

The Stone Roses show you can’t do business sitting on your arse!

Home town favourites The Stones Roses returned to Manchester over the weekend, with over 225,000 sing-a-longers dancing in Heaton Park at the three gigs to their 15 great songs in a set-list of 19, and not a duff one there. And this didn’t include Elephant Stone, one of my favourites.

There were many questions facing fans when they arrived at Heaton Park. Could the Roses pull off the gig of their lives? Could Ian Brown stay in tune? Would they play any new songs? Does it always rain in Manchester? But the question nobody expected to be asking was: How much longer do I have to queue? Over the weekend many fans complained about the lack of toilets at the event. Hey, real rock ‘n roll when you’re 49 like me it is about the basic comforts in life – I imagine even Joey Ramone wanted privacy sometimes.

Many found it difficult to get a drink – and if they did, there was little chance of being able to relieve themselves afterwards as the queues for toilets became unmanageable. It might seem a petty gripe – many in attendance were from the generation who braved Spike Island and survived to tell the tale. But when you’ve shelled out £60 for a ticket it’s perhaps not too much to ask that you can have the occasional wee. There were many mobile devices at Heaton Park, but patently smartphones out numbered mobile loos by some margin.

Of course the Glastonbury festival will not be held in 2012 owing to an insurmountable pre-Olympic shortage of police officers and (more crucially) portable lavatories – the Olympic organising committee is talking around 14,000 units (fitted each day with two toilet rolls), more than the biggest British company could supply – so Glasto was cancelled. The Jubilee also handed the portable loo industry significant uplift in demand, so 2012 will see operators flushed with success. Intrigued, I looked into the sector further.

The Economist had a useful article, informing me that portable toilets arrived in Europe with the US army in the 1950s. They watched us digging latrines in post-war Germany, and they thought, we’ve got something a lot better than that. There is one successful British manufacturer, but the vast majority of facilities – which generally come complete with waste tank containing disinfectant and deodoriser, toilet, lockable door and foot-operated washbasin – still come from the US.

A basic loo, in low season, might set you back £25 a week to hire. More upmarket models come in the form of large portable buildings, each holding several porcelain toilets. Depending on the degree of luxury desired, the interiors may be heated, wallpapered, even decorated with appropriate artwork. Some may even pipe Handel’s Water Music through loudspeakers. All the toilets are drained, cleaned, disinfected and deodorised after use, with the contents carried in a tank to the nearest sewage pumping station. The beech paneling, wraparound mirrors, plasma-screen televisions and sumptuous toiletries of some modern trailers would not be out of place in a posh hotel.

Construction workers were the earliest adopters of mobile serviced lavatories, which became standard issue on building sites, and industrial users still account for three-quarters of the 100,000-plus portable loos in the country.

But it is hard to make money out of builders’ bums. Construction slumped during the financial crisis, and rental fees have dropped as the cost of transport, chemicals and waste disposal have risen. A basic portable unit, which costs £500 to buy, can often be hired for £20-25 a week, not a great return.

So most hire firms now serve the events market too. Leasing to music festivals, sporting events and private functions brings higher margins. But this business is difficult to predict, and since transporting loos is so time-consuming and expensive, most outfits remain small and fairly local. Even specialist events firms need construction work to tide them through the winter.

The industry’s best hope now lies in technology. Most luxury and bog-standard loos are ‘recirculating’, meaning they are flushed with existing waste from the tank below, combined with a blue chemical compound. But vacuum toilets, akin to aeroplane ones, are gaining popularity. They use little water and no chemicals and since they don’t send waste whizzing round again, they are better for health. But they are pricey, they will not soon transform the business – a high-end trailer with a vacuum toilet currently costs around £40k compared with £25k for a recirculating one.

Yet the technology has promise. Some humanitarian organisations are considering using vacuum toilets for crisis situations, because there is less waste to dispose of. Mobile loos may even inspire the next generation of fixed facilities as they use so much less water than normal lavatories that architects are getting interested in installing vacuum toilets in new buildings. If they catch on, the bottom could fall out of the flush toilet market.

In the UK, there is a highly fragmented market – compare this to the world’s largest supplier, ADCO of Germany who are proud owners of a barely imaginable 300,000 brand toilets. So what are the challenges facing a UK portable loo operator, and the characteristics of the market?

  • Unpredictable customer demand patterns, driven by short-term spikes and spot hires, and seasonal demand.
  • From this, pressure on inventory holding strategies and the impact on working capital.
  • A ‘bog standard’ end of the market (80%) and an up-market end (20%) where consumers, flushed with a little more cash, can sit more comfortably in their space.
  • New emerging markets (events) as the traditional core market (construction) declines.
  • No domestic market leader, a highly fragmented market place.
  • Extreme pricing pressures on equipment hire giving poor cashflow and low ROI on investment in product.
  • Very much a ‘me 2’ business, basically a single product market, little product differentiation.

Undoubtedly the biggest challenge is managing volatile demand in a cost effective manner, as this can lead to significant benefits for a company from lower supply chain costs to improved customer service levels, and ultimately potential pricing advantages. So how do you consistently meet service level and profitability goals without necessarily having the capacity – or visibility – to do so? It requires a flexible and responsive supply chain and fulfillment network to ensure dynamic alignment of supply with ever-changing demand. I’m sure that’s what they thought about at Heaton Park.

The challenge is in capturing and consolidating multiple ‘living’ forecasts to understand true demand and translating that into a single cohesive, collaborative decision and response. The reality is that the plan can never be completely accurate given the certainty of daily/weekly changes that will occur inside the planning horizon. More and more companies are operating in an environment where many of the assumptions taken into the planning process are proven wrong as soon as you complete that process.

Today’s demand driven supply chains, with their customer-focused, ‘pull-based’ models, have a customer-centric mind set acknowledges that you can no longer effectively ‘plan’ your customers’ needs, rather they must focus on responding to them. This requires abandoning the historic mentalities of forecasting and planning.

Given the level of volatility, human input and judgment is essential to figure out the right trade-offs to make when the business doesn’t run as planned, (e.g. forecast change, product revision, late customer order, supply shortage), which is now the rule, not the exception. Solutions combine collaborative ‘what-if’ analysis and rapid decision support.

Achieving excellence in responding to changing customer demands has become the number one challenge facing enterprises today and can represent the largest opportunity for companies to increase customer service, enhance margins and attain more predictable revenue across the entire value chain.

Meeting the portable toilet market demand is no different to any ‘on-demand’ business – the Internet has created new models such as Amazon Web Services (, Zipcar (, Airnb ( and Rent the Runaway (

They have business models in the ‘on-demand’ economy — what you need, when you need it, without a long-term commitment. From Cloud services for IT, picking up a car for running an hour of errands, to staying in a cosy apartment for a few nights as if it were your own, to wearing a designer dress for a night and then sending it back, these companies operate in the new consumer paradigm supported by innovative internet based services – but have the same attributes as the portable loo market – some visibility on forward customer demand based on experience, but spot volatility.

June, July and August are already the busiest time of the year for Britain’s estimated 350-400 portable toilet hire companies. You’ve got your national sporting classics, music festivals – Glastonbury alone takes 650-700 units – and of course myriad little local events – fetes and gymkhanas and sports days and weddings. Add the Jubilee and the Olympics into the mix and it’s not what you might call, pardon the expression, a bog-standard summer.

As the consummate guitar of John Squire and on-stage braggadocio of Ian Brown entertained the crowd, the queue lingered. Damien Hirst’s recent assertion that the Stone Roses were more important than Picasso seems a little misplaced, but who needs loos anyway? Don’t eat or drink anything. It will make your night out cheaper and cut down the chances of catching E coli. Swallow several boxes of Imodium. Just be prepared for all hell to break loose when you get home.

The on-demand agile business model is the new economic landscape for all markets, driven by the global internet businesses where the customer model is ‘self-service’. Translating this to seemingly simple domains such as portable loos seems laughable, but it’s not. Your business needs to have increased agility, faster ROI, lower barriers to more flexible payment models for customers, alongside reduced complexity and cost of service management. ‘Pay-as-you-go’ models for Zipcar, Airnb and Rent the Runway show that simple markets have adopted this concept. Mind sets need to change from ‘product’ to ‘service’ and ‘transaction’ to ‘relationship’, and embrace new consumption and delivery models.

The maxim of entrepreneurs – You can’t do business sitting on your arse – applies at all times, but for operators in the portable loo market, that’s how they earn a living from their customers, on-demand and self-service.