What makes a company successful?...

... delivering products and services that are relevant and create impact among consumers.

I combine my expertise as a Marketing executive in a Fortune 500 company and my passion as an investor to find the Companies that I think have "cracked the code" with consumers. Advertising does work. When I see a new product that fits relevant consumer trends, and that is supported with a campaign that I find particularly shrewd and innovative, I know that Company is potentially a great investment.

One of the great investors of all times, Peter Lynch, recommends to "buy what you know". You watch TV, go to the supermarket and walk around everyday. Observe... look around: what you see can make you money in the stock market. Now, let's be clear: a Company is not good just because it advertises. What we have to look for is great products supported with -and enhanced by- great advertising. The principle is simple: if something is good enough to draw your interest, it will be of interest to millions of persons just like you.

It is my goal to share with the reader my findings in the world of marketing which I think will turn into great returns for investors. Profit from it!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Apple vs. Microsoft: embracing the Zeitgeist - Part 1

In my last post, "The Spirit of the Times", I discussed how, in order to be successful today, a brand needs to embrace the zeitgeist or the spirit of the times. Today I will start illustrating this idea with a series of very investable examples.

The most influential brand of our time is, by far, Apple (AAPL). How many brands or companies are there whose endeavors are so eagerly followed by press and consumers alike? While most companies need to resort to stunts and massive PR efforts to try to attract the attention of the press, Apple’s every move is news. Journalists line up to try to break the latest idea Apple is working on. We, as consumers, are simply enthralled by the succession of amazing technologies Apple makes available to us. And even those of us who don’t have that many Apple products wished we had them. As an investor, there is no doubt in my mind: Apple is a core stock that must be owned and retained for the years, if not decades, to come. But why? What is Apple’s spell?

Many marketers and analysts have tried to rationalize it and decode it: innovation, design, courage, Steve Jobs. All those traits (except for Jobs, of course) are not unique to Apple. How do they pull them together, what sort of alchemy do they apply to combine them in such a successful proposition then?

In my view, I would summarize Apple’s magic in two words: enlightenment and selflessness. Now, these are words that much rather seem to describe the Dalai Lama than a company, and that you will hardly find in any business or marketing text. They are kind of lofty and pretentious, aren't they? So, am I being petulant here?

The best way to start explaining my choice of words is by some quick comparative analysis: why aren’t other Apples out there? Most companies invest a tremendous amount of resources talking to consumers, gathering insights, trying to understand what is important for them. All too often, though, those insights are unconsciously sifted through previously established paradigms. These paradigms are based on the knowledge and understanding accumulated by a company or industry through the years: what worked or what didn’t in the past, previous understanding of the consumers and products, assumptions built on experience and so on. Paradigms die hard. The world changes around us, but we have a tendency to cling to old paradigms. More often than not, new insights are either forced to fit the old paradigms or simply, discarded as outliers. Even when new insights are gathered and understood, the second sin most companies go through is to stubbornly try to, once again, force an existing solution into meeting the new insight. Most companies develop an introspective understanding of the world, of their industry and of their own capabilities, and end up believing it as the absolute Truth. That is, we tend to fall in love with ourselves and end up drinking our own Kool Aid.

For me, one of the most blatant examples of this behavior is Microsoft (MSFT). With regard to their operating system, their last true innovation was Windows XP. Everything else has pretty much been a cosmetic improvement over the same platform. Their product, their view of the world has become so ingrained in their organizational psyche, that they basically dismiss any consumer understanding that doesn't fit their own paradigm. To illustrate this point, think of this capital sin: they launch a Home version of Windows 7. Home, OK? For you and me, basically. Fairly profficient in turning the computer on, writing a few emails and surfing the Web, but not much more. One day, you are more or less happy at your computer when an error occurs and the message that you get is an unintelligible code accompanied by a “Talk to your system administrator” instruction. I don’t know you, but at home we don’t tend to have a system administrator lurking around in case Windows decides to misbehave. OK, so you don't know what to do and, of course, try to see if the Help function in the system can shed any light on your problem. Have you ever tried to use Windows Help? You need a doctoral degree in Applied Electromechanical Astrophysics just to get a shot at understanding what they are talking about. If this is their “Home” version, I don’t even want to imagine the nightmares the IT guys go through with the Enterprise one! The issue here? The company's focus is on the product, not on the consumers that are going to use it. What prevails is the vision and understanding of the engineers creating the software. Sure, they listen to the consumers; they have extensive ethnographic and anthropological research on how the consumers use the products. But then, they develop engineering solutions to what they perceived the consumer is asking for. They force the insights into their own paradigms. After all, Applied Electromechanical Astrophysics has become part of the pop culture, hasn't it?

So Microsoft, proud of its accomplishments (and tickled by Apple's constant snipes at them), goes and spends a fortune in media with a campaign that try to convince consumers that “Windows 7 was my idea”. Yeah, right. My “System Administrator” kind of disagrees. See, you can’t resolve with advertising what your product doesn’t deliver. Microsoft has become an introspective behemoth that ended up believing that the world truly is what they see through the lenses they’ve built for themselves, and that reflects in everything they do. Windows Mobile? As clunky as the parent application. Office? Still the standard, but getting harder to use.
OK, so what about Apple? Yeah, about that… I’ll continue in my next post.

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