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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Alice.com Proves Not Making Money Can Be a Winning Strategy

by Ric Merrifield

Alice.com Proves Not Making Money Can Be a Winning StrategyIt doesn't happen very often, but sometimes I hear about a new company or a new innovation and slap my forehead wondering why I didn't think of it first. Netflix was a little bit like that, but I heard about alice.com today and that one in particular bugs me because I have been writing about the basic idea behind Alice for nearly three years, I just hadn't thought to turn it into an actual Web storefront.

So what is Alice and why is it such an a great idea? Well, Alice (named for the Brady Bunch character - good move), is a site that sells consumer goods over the internet. Things like soap, toilet paper, laundry detergent, and so on. The clever part about their model is that they don't make any money selling the products that they offer. They make their money selling advertising on the site, and selling purchase data back to the manufacturers (which the manufacturers have wanted, but lacked forever). Data is king in the world of sales, and Alice is positioning itself to be the impartial third party that sits between the customer and the manufacturer. As long as Alice doesn't compromise the identities of their customers, I don't see how they can lose. Customers value price and manufacturers value richer customer data (what they buy and what causes them to buy), and everyone wins.

Costco logoThis model is in some respects like Costco in the sense that they also don't try to make any money selling the products in their stores. It's no secret that Costco's profits come from their membership dues and that model has served them (and their shareholders) very well for a long, long time. Counter intuitive, but brilliant in retrospect.

I love the spin that Alice is putting on this, and with such a great name, the only way they can fail is in execution, and with two seasoned leaders, that seems pretty unlikely.

This is the kind of rethinking other organizations need to be doing right now. Instead of just optimizing business models that are based on the old fashioned brick and mortar models (like narrow margins on markup), there are so many opportunities to solve age old problems (like manufacturers not getting good data on who is buying their products - and what advertising actually causes customers to buy their products). People need to figure them out like Alice.

I am half tempted to start a site that sells meat at cost and call it Sam (after Alice's boyfriend, the butcher), but meat's a very different animal, if you will.


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Ric Merrifield is known at the "Business Scientist" at Microsoft Corporation in Redmond, WA and is the author of "Rethink". He blogs about ways to rethink through getting out of what he calls "the 'how' trap".

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Innovation Perspectives - Packaging Up Innovation

This is the sixth of several 'Innovation Perspectives' articles we will publish this week from multiple authors to get different perspectives on 'What product or sector is in desperate need of innovation?'. Here is the next perspective in the series:

by Adam Schorr

Innovation Perspectives - Packaging Up InnovationWhile recent years have been a boon for innovation in various industries such as consumer electronics and automotive, the consumer packaged goods industry seems to be stuck serving up warmed over versions of past innovation. But while product innovation in CPG is badly needed, the true innovation crisis in CPG has to do with the fundamental business model. Although the players have been changing due to industry consolidation, the CPG industry continues to labor under a decades old business model whose foundational truths evaporated years ago.

The essence of the CPG business model is as follows: One group of companies manufactures products that are perceived by consumers as significantly better than the alternatives. Over time, these products serve as the backbone for brands that are loved and trusted by consumers and which are relied on as shortcuts to simplify purchase decisions. These companies sell their products to a second group of companies (retailers) who have expertise in merchandising and who, in turn, sell the products to the end users (consumers).

This model worked out well for the manufacturers when two things were true: 1) Their products were perceived by consumers as significantly better than the alternatives and 2) They had the trust and attention of consumers and were able to motivate consumers to go to the retail stores to buy.

Today, these essential truths are no longer true.

With ample contract manufacturing capacity available in the market, private label goods are proliferating. More importantly, a sizable and growing share of consumers perceive private label versions of products to be as good or better than their branded counterparts. Just as troublesome is the fact that manufacturers no longer have the trust and attention of the consuming public which means they cannot influence consumers to go out in droves and shop in retail stores as once they could. In a world where manufacturers are not producing products that are perceived as significantly better than the private label alternatives and where the 30 second commercial no longer holds a mass audience in rapt attention, manufacturers of branded consumer goods are in a very precarious position. One has to wonder whether the role they play in the CPG value chain is still needed. I can assure you that the retailers are asking this very question and are answering it ever more vociferously in the negative.

Sadly, some of the CPG players draw the wrong lesson from their current woes. Some have declared a war on costs, seeking to drive cost of out of their system so that they can reinvest back in their brands. This is an example of trying to play your game harder. Playing your game harder makes sense when success is a function of skill. But success in CPG today is not a function of skill, it is a function of position. The retailers occupy a privileged position on the competitive landscape. They own the shelves and they own the stores in which consumers shop. Trying to win a battle of costs against private label goods is a waste of time. Branded goods will not only lose this battle, they will undercut whatever raison d'etre they still possess.

All is not lost for the CPG community. As always, innovation is the key to success. Branded goods manufacturers need to focus on two things: 1) Knocking the socks off of their consumers with products that are not easily copied. These fantastic products will earn the attention of the consuming public. 2) Finding a way to recapture the relationship with the consumer.

The 30 second commercial is not coming back as a means of building consumer relationships. Brand stewards must leverage new technologies to turn the attention that their products earn into brand loyalty that can deliver financial returns. Once these two fundamentals have been re-established, CPG manufacturers would be wise to re-evaluate the rationale for funneling all of their sales through a channel that has demonstrated robust support for building its own private label business at the expense of the big brands.

The path of meaningful innovation is the only path to success for the manufacturers of branded consumer goods. They can choose to continue tweaking the current model or to seek a new model. One thing is clear: The market will not wait for them.


You can check out all of the 'Innovation Perspectives' articles from the different contributing authors on 'What product or sector is in desperate need of innovation?' by clicking the link in this sentence.



Adam SchorrAdam Schorr is an experienced innovator and brand manager with a passion for the human soul and its ability to reshape the universe. Adam blogs about innovation, marketing and all sorts of quirky topics at www.adamschorr.com.

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