Saturday 13 December 2008

Make the easy things easy and the hard things possible

I was reading a recent post from the blog brandgym about blyk, the new mobile phone operator who provides a "free" mobile service to 16-24 year olds, funded by advertising revenue. Although this is an interesting proposition and I have to admit, one I thought would fail quite quickly when I first heard of its launch, what struck me most was how it came about. Apparently the founder of blyk, Antti Ohrling got the idea from the free morning newspaper, Metro and thought if it can work for papers why can't it work for mobile.

The mobile sector is however well known for commercial innovation – from the creation of pre-pay mobile in the mid-90's to the emergence of mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) like Virgin Mobile.

Looking at the recent headlines I thought how this contrasted with the automotive industry which is obviously struggling at the moment in the wake of people pulling in on their purse strings, with new car sales down almost 40% - the commercial model for selling cars seems to have changed little over the years with car dealerships affiliated with a car manufacturers.

Whatever the business, one of the fundamental aspects of gaining a sale is to make the purchase process as simple as possible – removing or reducing any barriers that may exist. When purchasing a new car there are a number of "barriers" to overcome. The most obvious is liquidity – does the customer have the cash or access to the cash to purchase the vehicle - if the customer can't raise the funds then there is little possibility of a sale. Increasingly though another barrier is depreciation – with new cars typically losing 40% of their value in the first 3 years and up to 25% of their value when driven off the forecourt, the decision of new car versus used car is increasingly difficult.

Buying a new car is essentially an emotional decision – it makes no sense rationally as the only advantage over a used car is the "factory fresh smell" and the knowledge that no one else has driven it. In the current economic climate, emotional decisions are going to be much harder to come by with customers instead thinking about every pound they spend. What is interesting though is that odds are someone working today will still be working when the current slowdown is over – so money isn't really the issue – for many people it's the commitment. Not knowing what may happen in the next 12 months means people will be less likely to want to commit themselves financially.

So if car manufactures want to sell cars they need to address two issues – managing depreciation - so new cars don't look so irrational when compared to used cars – and facilitating purchase. I'm not suggesting these are necessarily easy things to answer (or the only things) and obviously car leasing and loans help to address the issue of having upfront cash. However they do little to address depreciation or commitment issues and finance brings its own issue; anyone who has insured a newly financed car will have thought about "gap insurance" – that product which covers the shortfall between what you owe for your car and what the insurance company actually pays out.

There is however some recent commercial innovation in the car industry. Hertz announced this week that it was entering into the car sharing market in London; providing cars for as little as £4 per hour – it isn't the first to do this, but it is probably one of the biggest brands. For many, this can be a great way of having access to a car without the cost or hassle of owning it. In fact physically "owning" things is becoming increasingly less of a requirement – whether its on-demand services like BT Vision for films or Napster for music, people are getting used to having access to something rather than actually owning it and websites like Zilok are now making it possible to rent things when you actually want them, from drills to drums. Car sharing may not be practical for many people but the ability to simply have access to a vehicle with minimum commitment and no associated ownership issues like depreciation could be offered through more flexible forms of financing.

So what has all this got to do with retaining customers? Well over the last decade or so, for many industries retaining customers has consisted of providing better services than your competitor – the customer was always going to buy, they just needed help in deciding from whom. Now things have changed however - the customer may not be buying at all!

For many companies what's required is a review of how you go to market to ensure that you make it as easy as possible for customers to do business with you – both existing and new - looking outside of your own industry could be a great place to start; who knows, the morning news paper could just provide that inspiration.


Jonathan said...

Good article!

I used to work with Antti at Blyk so found you through an alert and felt compelled to comment :)

I believe the 'Metro' example above has wider implications than a seemingly random insipration point. It is certainly worth considering what happened with the 6 preceding mass media to mobile (print, recordings, radio, cinema, tv, internet). Every single one of them has ended up with predominant ad-funded environments.

Free or subsidized consumption is incredibly popular, but the opportunity with mobile dialogue (hot media) is far richer than monologue (cold media).

Mobile will undoubtedly include significant ad-funded models. As we are dealing with the most personal device of all time, advertising will need to be in a trusted value exchange to enhance experiences that simply cannot be based on the same toleration as we have all got used to in common media. See here for reference (

Environments of trust can only be created around rules of engagement that simply haven't been adopted much by marketers to date. See here for reference (

In summary, it is a great time for inspired disruption and sometimes, quirky business models appear that seem bizarre until we think about them a different way and realise that they make total and utter sense. Ethos, Pathos, Logos.

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