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Sometimes Simplicity Leads to Big Innovation

June 30, 2017

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This post originally appeared on Hanley Wood’s HIVE for Housing site.

Brands spend millions of dollars on innovation—establishing innovation labs, commissioning studies, and paying high-priced consultants—all to ensure they don’t become the next Kodak, Blockbuster, or Tower Records. From Tesla to Google to Amazon, tech companies are entering into new markets and disrupting brands that have controlled market share for decades. As a result, corporate R&D departments are spending millions to try to develop the next Instagram, Nest, or Echo so they aren’t the next “what not to do” casualty.

While your R&D team works on your company’s moonshots, remember that innovation isn’t always the result of millions of dollars or teams of dozens of people. There have been many innovations with much more humble beginnings. Dollar Shave Club was developed by a guy who was tired of buying razors from the drug store. Equipter was developed by a roofer who wanted a better way to remove old roofing shingles. Domino’s Pizza famously embraced the ingenuity of its employees in its “a great idea can come from anywhere” campaign, which touted the story of a new product, developed by a franchise owner in Ohio, that was then sold at locations across the country.

The most common difference between the corporately funded labs and these examples? The R&D teams focus on what will deliver the highest ROI whereas the others have a much simpler goal: to solve a problem. And the latter is something that every employee at every level at every company should be striving to do.

The home building category is ripe with opportunities for this kind of streamlined, simplified innovation. While the big brands invest millions in discovering the next billion-dollar idea, individual inventors and startups are busy identifying ways to help make the average builder’s job easier instead of worrying about what will make millions.

While the tech industry has made significant inroads into the home building industry, it has also opened up a world of opportunity for those builders. Technology, like the Amazon Echo and Nest Thermostat, have created entirely new homeowner behaviors, all with thousands of new data points.

If a builder would talk to my Echo, they’d hear an awful lot of my complaints as a homeowner and DIYer. There’s no shortage of terrible user experiences begging to be fixed:

  • In an era of apps and big data, why do HVAC inspectors still rely on stickers to track furnace maintenance?
  • Why don’t bolts have the size etched on top so you don’t have to test and try different sizes to see what fits?
  • Why do we have to play a guessing game to discover what’s behind our own walls? (I hate hearing the contractor tell me, “We won’t know for sure until we rip the walls down and see what’s inside!”)

This is the genius of Intuit’s “Follow Me Home” program. It forces the company’s engineers to understand the end user—how they’re using the software, what they like about it, what they wish it had, etc. It gives the Intuit team key insights that lead to small tweaks that have the ability to become a big success.

One way to get at the small, simple innovations is to bring in a new perspective. Remember, a great idea can come from anywhere. In an industry where customers are getting smarter and their expectations are climbing higher, home builders and housing developers should be striving for more innovation, both big and small.

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Who Will Become the Tesla or AirBnB of the Home Category?

September 4, 2015

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This post originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Hardware + Building Supply Dealer. 

Tower Records Goes Out of Business

Rethinking your relationship with your customers might be what’s needed to avoid becoming the Tower Records of the home category.

As much as I hate shoveling snow, I can’t possibly justify spending upwards of $500 on a snow blower that I might use five days a year and would take up space in my garage for the remaining 360.

According to a recent PwC study, 43% of consumers agree that “owning feels like a burden.” When you consider the cost, maintenance and storage requirements, buying things is kind of a pain. It’s no wonder, then, that the “sharing economy” is estimated to be $110 billion (and growing fast), according to a November 2014 Leo Burnett study. Whether it’s Netflix, Spotify, Zipcar, TaskRabbit, Uber or Rent the Runway, there’s another, arguably better, alternative to ownership for virtually every aspect of our lives.

In a world where people don’t aspire to own their own homes or even openly despise the idea of owning a car, where does that leave the tool, yard care and appliance markets?

Brands in the home category have responded to this seismic shift the same way media companies responded to the shift in digital music – slowly and badly. The most established brands merely did what they know best – build a better mousetrap. In truth, rethinking one’s relationship to one’s customers might be what’s needed to avoid becoming the Tower Records of the home category.

People don’t want a snow blower; they want their driveway clear of snow. People don’t want a car; they want a reliable way to get from Point A to Point B.

BMW, the ultimate driving machine, is now trying to become the ultimate carsharing service. As Richard Steinberg, CEO of DriveNow at BMW said, “we used to be the provider of premium cars, and now we’re the provider of premium mobility as well as premium cars.”

For the home category, too, there are ways to create an ecosystem around your product versus creating a product that has to earn its place in some other network.

  • Implement a program where customers can trade in used products toward the purchase of a new one. Milwaukee Tools has a program where you can trade in old tools and get $100 off new ones. This not only helps customers who are looking to declutter, but also gets them to buy a new product as well.
  • Give customers the ability to rent your products directly. Sites like RentMyItems allow people to rent recreational equipment, tools and appliances from other people. What if you were able to keep that customer within your branded ecosystem by facilitating those rentals directly?
  • Give life to used or recycled tools by creating a branded tool library. Tool libraries are popping up all over the country and will only become more popular as the trends of urbanization, sharing and downsizing continue. A branded tool library would minimize waste, introduce more people to your brand and extend the life of your products.
  • Create a platform for customers to connect and share with each other. Think about what the NFL did with its Ticket Exchange. Recognizing that people were buying and selling tickets outside of the official properties, the NFL created a safe and secure platform that engaged its customers and gave the League a cut of the profit too. What if a tool brand created a branded online community where customers were able to buy, sell and share their tools with a very targeted and engaged group of people?

Far be it from the smaller players to help usher in a seachange of this magnitude. In another PwC survey of 1,322 global CEOs, half of the U.S. CEOs surveyed believe a significant competitor is emerging, or could emerge, from the technology sector. Take one look at what Tesla is doing to the automobile market, or what AirBnB is doing to the hotel market. Small technology startups are coming in and revolutionizing entire industries of big, established brands. Ford or Hilton could have just as easily assumed these roles, but now they’re all playing catchup to the smaller guys. Viewed through that lens, these ideas not only become more realistic for brands in the home category — they’re mandatory for survival.

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More Than a Stepping Stone – the Mid-Size City Becomes a PR Career Destination

August 21, 2015

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Pittsburgh Skyline

Image used under Creative Commons license

This post originally appeared on the PRSA Pittsburgh blog.

Take a look at the social media feeds for the media in any mid-size city around the country and you’ll see a ton of listicles, articles, and hype videos talking up their hometown. Thanks to the seemingly endless demand for new content, hometown pride is stronger than ever before. And based on my newsfeed, Pittsburghers seem to love their lists more than most.

Despite their love for the ‘Burgh, many young PR and marketing pros unfortunately still look at the city as a second-tier stepping stone. That to really have a PR career, they have to move to New York or Chicago or LA. However, as I wrote back in February and Shannon Baker wrote in May, it’s well past time for the PR and marketing pros here to change the conversation around our beloved city and show the country that we’re more than a stepping stone to somewhere else.

That’s why I got so excited when I saw Josh Brewster’s PRWeek article about Kansas City in July. I saw a lot of Pittsburgh (and Cleveland and Charlotte and Nashville, etc.) in Josh’s article. I reached out to Josh recently to get his take on the evolution of the mid-size city and how other cities can learn from what Kansas City has done to retain their top PR talent.

Steve: In your PRWeek article, you mention that “the city has rallied to keep Millennials and Generation Xers in Kansas City.” Can you expand on that at all? What is the city doing to try to keep those individuals there in KC?

Josh: It’s been amazingly simple, really. As a community, we’ve come together to make this happen. And it’s not like there have been community task forces, or anything choreographed like that. It’s been grassroots, real stuff that young people and the young-at-heart can latch on to and support. The most outward facing examples are events geared toward Millenials and Gen-Xers, like the Fiery Stick Open (http://fierystick.com/). It’s a day long event in the heart of Downtown KC that features awesome music (Girl Talk), hole-in-one golf contest for $1 million dollars, good beer, bocce ball, great food…who doesn’t love that? It’s not too corporate. There are other examples too. Like the “Midnight Underground Circus” (https://midnightundergroundcircus.splashthat.com). It is funded by corporate sponsorships (the same companies that need young talent to stay here), but it keeps a grassroots vibe. Surprise concerts, funky live entertainment…all the good things in life.

And all of it is geared toward catering to the next generation…to remind them they are in the right place. Right here in KC.

Steve: Pittsburgh had a bit of a “lost generation” of people who grew up in the 80s and early 90s who fled the city (myself included) for better jobs and more opportunities elsewhere. These people are now starting to boomerang back to the city and have really started to make an impact here. Does KC have a similar “boomerang generation” and if so, how are they working with the Millennials and Gen Xers?

Josh: Oh man, we are speaking the same language here. Ditto for us in KC. I was born and raised in Kansas City.  I went to college in St. Louis, and returned home a year after I graduated. But so many of my friends (and others in general) headed to Chicago, Denver, stayed in St. Louis, moved out to LA, New York…all the usual suspects. Slowly but surely they are coming back. And you know what? They aren’t shy when they return. They are getting involved, and we are welcoming them back with open arms.

And it’s not just about geographical decisions. It’s a pride standpoint too. Some folks have lived here forever, and are now beginning to jump on the KC bandwagon. And that’s a good thing. Maybe it’s all the growth we’ve experienced downtown. Maybe it’s the Royals (hell yes). Something has lit a fire in everybody’s belly to take it up a notch. And we love it.

Steve: Beyond the lower cost of living, how has your firm and other KC firms made that mid-size city attractive to talent who may have their sights set on one of those big cities? How do you get a talented 25 year-old to turn down the opportunities in The Loop in Chicago for The Loop in KC?  

Josh: I’d be lying if I said I had a perfect solution to this. But we are trying our hardest to find and keep the very best here in KC…and specifically at our agency. We don’t always win that battle, but we make it a priority. Our angle is centered on “Impact.” In Kansas City, you can make an impact. We’re not Mayberry or anything like that. We are healthy-sized metro area – 2.75 million people. But there is something about this place that makes it feel much smaller.

We tout the philanthropic community as an incredible opportunity. It is such a welcoming opportunity, and Millenials absolutely love to have the chance to make a difference in the community…outside the office. In our opinion, it’s more difficult to break into that world in a super large metro.

We also focus on the size of our company – it’s midsized (like KC on a macro level). We have 55 folks working here. We’re all entrepreneurial, and we all have an extra gear to deliver for our clients. There’s a chance to blaze your own path in our company, and as a young up-and-comer in the Kansas City community. That’s a nice position to be in. So we sell that pretty hard.

Steve: You’ve lived in KC for a long time now and seen a lot of changes in the city and in the industry out there. What advice do you have to cities like Pittsburgh that are in the midst of a similar renaissance?  

Josh: I love this question. My advice is simple: Don’t apologize for being proud of your home city. We’re all in the same boat, whether it’s Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Austin, Nashville. We all have a sense of pride. In Kansas City, we’ve come together to make the most of that pride. Whether it’s the “KC” hats everybody wears, to the Charlie Hustle t-shirts (look them up, they are awesome) we all have, it’s a constant reminder that we are part of something awesome.

It’s that collective spirit that helps us build a new convention hotel in downtown, explore a new airport, build a world-class performing arts center, sell out Kauffman Stadium for Royals games, rejuvenate historic entertainment districts…all that good stuff.

So, the short answer is: Embrace that collective spirit, and create something awesome that a new generation can enjoy and experience.

Steve: For a client looking for a new PR or marketing agency, what are the benefits to looking outside the big cities for their next agency relationship?

Josh: I don’t think it matters where your agency is located. What matters is if they understand your key audience, the competitive landscape you are facing, and are willing to hustle on your behalf until the needle is moved. So many brands – big and small – default to big-city agencies. But I can honestly say, some of the best PR and Ad work is created in cities like Kansas City, Omaha, Pittsburgh and Nashville. They work hard, leave their ego at the door, and deliver for their clients.

We’d love to hear from other PR pros in mid-size cities across the country as well. What’s the PR scene like in Indianapolis? Columbus? Chattanooga? Get in touch and let’s talk about how we can improve apply our PR brains to change the perception of these cities among the generation that’s about to enter the workforce.

Josh Brewster is a Vice President at Trozzolo Communications Group based in Kansas City, Missouri. For more on Trozzolo, visit their website at http://www.trozzolo.com/

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Is Our PR Community Part of the New Pittsburgh or the Old One?

February 3, 2015

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This post originally appeared on PRSA Pittsburgh’s blog. 

Kayaks on the Allegheny

Creative Commons image from Flickr user Slackley

In this month’s Pittsburgh Magazine, there’s a story highlighting how millennials are literally and figuratively transforming my hometown.

Where there once existed the attitude that young people had to leave Pittsburgh to find a career, there’s now a sizable part of our city that feels is staying in Pittsburgh to create their career. And people around the country are taking notice.

From startup incubators to entrepreneurs to civil activists, Pittsburgh is attracting a demographic I grew used to being surrounded by over the last 12 years in both Washington D.C. and Chicago. People who care more about making an impact rather than getting a promotion. People who volunteer alongside competitors and clients to advance a cause they believe in. People who go to as many networking events, conferences, and happy hours as they could just to be a part of the energy around them.

When I moved back here in August, my friends and colleagues all asked if I’d miss that feeling, that energy. They said that atmosphere doesn’t exist here because if you’re talented and ambitious, you know better than to stay in Pittsburgh. They said I’d miss that vibe and that I’d wish I didn’t move. They said Pittsburgh is where you go if you can’t hack it in a bigger city or when you’re ready to slow down and take it easy.

I want to prove them wrong.

Pittsburgh and other mid-size cities get a bad rap in the PR and marketing industry. “You need to be in NYC to get access to the media,” they say. “The most creative work comes out of the big agencies because they can afford the talent,” they say. There’s a hell of a lot of talent outside of New York and Chicago that tends to get lost because, paradoxically, PR people generally do an awful job at promoting themselves. Even in our own city, it’s the startups in the East End, or the CMU engineers, or the foodie restaurants that are opening up who get all the attention for the “new Pittsburgh.” Where’s the PR, advertising, and marketing community in all of that?

I want to show them that we’ve got some cool things up our sleeves too.

And I think there’s a whole lot people here in the Pittsburgh PR community who feel the same way. Whether it’s the wonderful team that I have at my agency or the enthusiastic PRSA Pittsburgh Board members or the people I met last night at the PRSA Pittsburgh Renaissance Awards, I’ve seen that ambition and desire to make an impact, to be at the tip of the spear of something big. The potential is there.

This year, let’s show the rest of this city and the country what we’ve got here.

Let’s commit to never saying “because that’s how things have been done before.”

Let’s do a better job at educating the people in our organization about the value we bring.

Let’s collaborate and come together more often (virtually and physically) to learn from and push each other to do big things.

Let’s think bigger.

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