As the president of the traveling exhibition company, American Exhibitions Inc., Marcus Corwin knows that creating the “blockbuster” exhibitions that the public wants to see involves creativity and ingenuity. But it also takes a lot of patience and upfront research.

“You don’t get Broadway successes overnight,” says Corwin, who joined the Boca Raton, Fla.-based exhibition company in 2006. “Most of them don’t make it. So how do you create something that people are going to want to see, that they’re going to be excited about, they’re going to be engaged?”

The company must develop new products all the time that it knows will resonate with customers. Corwin says that step one is figure out what fascinates and excites your potential audience — a million-dollar question for any business. This was the goal he had in mind when the organization developed its Mummies of the World exhibition, which focuses on a topic that has fascinated people for centuries.

“When Pepsi or Coca-Cola go to design a new soda, they’ve gone and done some focus groups, they’ve done some development, spent money on marketing,” he says. “And as good as they are, sometimes they get it wrong. So with regard to how do you find a product that you want to bring to market … sometimes we have it in our gut.”

Part of creating a hit with customers is having a sense for what the public wants by doing your homework and knowing who your customer is. By looking at similar exhibits that resonated with consumers, for example, Corwin was able to recognize trends toward subject matter such as human anatomy. The fact that these exhibits were extremely popular with consumers around the world evolved into the concept of mummies.

“Our thought process was what else would be people interested in seeing, because people are always interested in their history and the cultures that came before them,” Corwin says.

From there, it’s finding out how much they like it, what aspects resonate and most importantly whether they will pay and how much they will pay for it.

“We went and we had focus groups here in Florida,” Corwin says. “We had focus groups in Boston, Mass., and we had focus groups in Philadelphia — all which helped us identify the public’s perceptions of mummies and the public’s needs of why they choose an exhibition to come to, why they chose a museum to come to, how they spend their money and what are their trigger points in coming to see an exhibition like mummies.”

With focus groups, it’s important to examine a variety of feedback. Corwin specifically wanted to know which points of interest appealed to the majority of the audience, what price points could turn that interest into business, and which marketing materials were inviting versus frightening.

In the end, the company was able to put together the largest collection of mummies ever assembled in history from Egypt, South America, Asia and Oceania.

“We’ve had over 500,000 people see the exhibit already,” Corwin says. “Over 85 percent of them liked the exhibit a lot and would recommend the exhibit to their friends, family and relatives.”

Corwin says that when you have a product that’s successful, you need to then be asking yourself questions such as “What is our progression of additional product?” and “How do we continue to grow?” so you are always building on success.

Since the company opened the exhibit, it has done exit surveys at every location to determine what drove customers to attend and what they did and didn’t like so they can continue to improve the product. Now that it has built this brand and knows that people like mummies, Corwin says the next venture is to create sequels, such as Mummies II.

“From my company’s viewpoint, it’s almost like being at the helm of an ocean freighter,” Corwin says. “When you’re at the helm of an ocean freighter, you are looking way ahead, because it’s going to take you a period of time to shift the direction and speed of the ship. So I’m looking not one year out, but where am I going to be two, three, four, five years out with our company.”

How to reach: American Exhibitions Inc., (561) 482-2088 or www.americanexhibitions.com

Considering costs

In any kind of strategic planning, budgeting is very important. When you’re putting on a nationwide exhibition for thousands of people, it’s critical to map out your budget as clearly as possible so you can deliver for your partners and customers.

“The budget and forecasting is the premise of why you’re going forward with a project,” says Marcus Corwin, president of the exhibition company American Exhibitions Inc.

This was the greatest difficulty for Corwin and his team as they planned for “Mummies of the World,” especially because the economy is so uncertain.

“Sometimes we’re in a strong economy,” he says. “Sometimes we’re in a weaker economy. You can only make the best effort that you can do, but sometimes with the outcome, you are powerless.”

Once the budget and forecast make sense, being able to execute on that successfully involves a number of factors. One of the most important things to keep in mind is not getting carried away with ideas that haven’t been thoroughly vetted and can end up draining more resources or money than you have available. By making sure you are effectively planning and managing the costs, you can deliver your product at a better cost and profit.

“You have to deliver your product within those parameters,” Corwin says. “We found like typical in all worlds, designers have great ideas. And sometimes those ideas are pie in the sky and you have to be able to make sure that those ideas work, those ideas work within a budget and that the exhibit can be produced within that budget.”

Published in Florida

A realistic and in-depth understanding of who a company’s customers and prospects are is the foundation on which all business and marketing strategy is built.

“Many times entrepreneurs have an intuitive sense of who their customers are — and this should not be discounted; however, as a company grows, that perception can become detached from reality,” says Wes Phillips, agency principal at Orange Label Art + Advertising. “Therefore, companies need a system in place that not only identifies the quantitative and qualitative profiles of prospective customers but also identifies the types of messages they will respond to.”

“This understanding helps a company develop powerful messages that reach the right people and motivates them to take action so you can increase sales  and generate greater profits and more market share,” adds Rochelle Reiter, also an agency principal at Orange Label Art + Advertising.

Smart Business asked Phillips and Reiter how companies can better understand their customers and prospects and leverage this knowledge to increase the bottom line.

How does a company go about gathering market research?

Depending on the size of the company and resources available, there are many ways to obtain this information. The main types available include formal market research, focus groups, online market research and informal research. The first step is to determine which method is most appropriate for the specific business and current circumstance. This can be done by meeting with various market research companies and or marketing firms to get a sense for what is available.

What are the main forms of market research?

The traditional approach, which requires a significant budget, is to conduct formal market research. This approach requires investment in terms of time and money. It will take 3 to 12 months to gather the data and incorporate the findings into a marketing plan. It also will require a commitment from the senior management team to support the research, because many times the findings will be contrary to preconceived notions they may have.

Another faster, more economical way to gather information is to use focus groups. Focus groups should be facilitated by an outside resource. The data may not be statistically valid, but it is still highly relevant and actionable and the results can be known quickly.

Online market research is another option. The advantage is that the research can be completed very quickly. Companies should take caution with this approach, though, as there is some uncertainty regarding the validity of the responses. Or the questions may be so objective that subjective issues, which can surface when using a more one-to-one approach, may be overlooked.

Small and medium-size businesses often find it difficult to implement formalized and statistically valid studies and/or focus groups. Another approach is to interview 20 to 30 existing customers and 20 to 30 prospects, asking the two groups the same set of questions. This method is commonly known as informal market research. Two questions that every company should ask existing customers are ‘What would you never change?’ and ‘What would you change if you could?’ Respondents will give real-time responses, in their own words, regarding what they like about the product or service, why it’s working for them and the benefits they’re experiencing. They’ll also reveal what’s not working, why it’s not working and the missing benefits. From this information, a company’s marketing and/or creative director will be able to identify the words or phrases that are being used over and over, the way benefits are being described and the recurring themes and messages, and take that information to creatively position the emotional selling message and select the right types of media.

What should the company do when the research is finalized?

The research needs to be incorporated into the company’s strategic marketing plan, which can be produced by the internal marketing department or an outside advertising/marketing firm. The strategic marketing plan includes a communication strategy that defines the creative messaging, the media vehicles used to deliver the messages, the frequency for delivery and the desired results.

How will the data impact strategic marketing decisions?

The data acts as a catalyst for the messaging — so it impacts the entire communication strategy. It also informs how the messages are developed, guides and directs the words and images that are used, influences the media that will be used to communicate the messages and helps to determine how much budget should be allocated to achieve successful results.

What is the impact on the bottom line when businesses understand their prospects and customers?

Research will provide information that, if used, will make a company more successful. Sometimes research surfaces insights that are unexpected and may initially appear to be negative. It may reveal that a product’s real benefits are not what were initially believed. This is powerful information because it provides insight into areas that can be managed before it’s too late (e.g., perhaps the R&D budget needs to be increased or the sales department requires additional resources). This insight allows a company to go back and revisit a product or service to evolve or enhance it and improve its competitive edge. Other times, conversations with customers and prospects may provide entirely new insights to evolve messaging to stay relevant and competitive.

Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a higher ROI on marketing investments (i.e., obtain more leads that convert to sales at higher profit margins). Higher margins mean a company can afford a better sales team and better distribution channels and can provide better returns to shareholders.

WES PHILLIPS and ROCHELLE REITER are the agency principals of Orange Label Art + Advertising. Reach them at (949) 631-9900 or wphillips@orangelabeladvertising.com or rreiter@orangelabeladvertising.com.

Published in Orange County

Tricky problems call for expert advice, but there are times when even the most popular experts can’t help you — times when you face a challenge that is unique to your business. To succeed in one of these instances, you need to know first that they exist and, second, how to find a solution that will work for you.

At my company, Branders, we found out the hard way that common problems don’t always share common solutions. For years, among our biggest challenges was one shared by many other companies: how to boost repeat sales. There was no shortage of books and consultants claiming expertise on that very topic, so we hit the bookstores and engaged consultants.

The first big idea we tested was the theory that repeat sales depend on giving customers what they really want. Survey responses showed that our customers really wanted low prices and great service, and we charted a course for improvement in those areas. Month by month, our prices came down and our customer service rating rose. Not bad — but it didn’t do enough for our repeat rates. So we kept looking.

The next big idea told us to “wow” the customer. It wasn’t enough. This theory said to give our customers everything they wanted. We also had to surprise and delight them.

We sent bouquets of fresh flowers to each new customer. And when flowers didn’t work, we tried other “wows.” The result was that we got a lot of nice thank-you notes but not a lot of additional repeat sales. So we kept looking.

Eventually we realized that the popular ideas simply weren’t working for us. That’s when we learned how to find our own answer.

We started by observing what our customers were actually doing. No surveys, no focus groups, no experts — just quiet, patient observation. When we identified customers who told us they loved us but then ordered from a competitor, we asked them to describe their most recent purchase process, step by step: what they’d done from the moment they started shopping to the moment they placed the new order. It was like watching a video replay, frame by frame. What we discovered shocked us.

To understand what happened next, it’s important to know a bit more about our business. Branders is a leader in the promotional products industry. We put logos on thousands of different products — pens, mugs, hats and countless others.

We saw that whenever our customers needed a new type of product, they looked for a new vendor. If they had a fantastic experience shopping for logo pens at Branders.com, for example, they didn’t necessarily come back when they needed logo hats. Instead, they asked colleagues for referrals or turned to Google.

Now that we knew what our customers were doing, we very quickly understood why they were doing it. They weren’t unhappy with us. They weren’t being “wowed” somewhere else. It simply hadn’t occurred to them that the company selling logoed pens would also be the place to look for logoed hats and vice versa. No amount of improving customer service or “wow” was going to change that. But as simple as the answer was, it wasn’t in any business book or a part of any expert’s big idea. It was a multimillion-dollar insight, and we had nobody’s expertise to thank but our own.

You can use the same approach to solve the most stubborn problems in your business. If the popular theories and explanations aren’t helping, it might be because the root cause of your problem isn’t like most others. So make your own observations and construct your own theory because sometimes, the only expert who can help your business is you.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. He can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.

Published in Northern California

Darron Burke’s picture is on the front of every bag of coffee he sells, a testament to the fact that he is always standing behind his product. When Burke launched Café Don Pablo as a specialty coffee roaster in 2004, he spent as many as 10 hours a day on his feet handing out samples of the coffee at Costco and sharing the company’s vision with anyone who would listen. As president and CEO of Café Don Pablo and its parent company, Burke Brands LLC, Burke has doubled the company’s product sales on average every year since. By embracing every opportunity to engage customers in the story and the mission of Café Don Pablo, he spearheaded the company’s tremendous domestic and international growth to $12 million in 2010 revenue.

Smart Business spoke with Burke about how he spreads Café Don Pablo’s mission of quality and value to get buy-in from customers and employees.

How have you set your company apart from competitors?

I wanted to give people an honest deal, and I wanted to produce the best of the best for a very good price. In other words: value. I don’t think that value ever goes out of style. … We wanted to give people a fair deal, a great quality coffee at a fair price. When somebody gets something that’s really special, if the quality of the product is such that it’s outstanding and you can tell that it’s different and better, people tend to want to share that with their friends and family.

Whenever we’re at Costco or Sam’s Club and we’re giving out samples and people walk by with another brand of coffee in their hand, they drink ours. They put theirs away immediately.

How does setting up sampling booths help communicate your value to customers?

We’ve spent a lot of time and a lot of money educating the consumer, and it’s worked. I make sure — and this is with everybody I come in contact with that has an interest in the business — I always try to share the vision and direction with them and try to get them to buy into it, because if they do, that just makes us stronger. For the last five years I’ve been standing out there myself on weekends giving out literally 1,000 little 4-ounce cups of coffee to people and giving them my little spiel and telling them why, what sets us apart. We’re the No. 1 selling coffee in Costco, and it’s because of that, because I’ve literally given tens of thousands of people, handed them a cup of coffee personally and told them about our company. There’s a lot of brand equity that’s been built up.

Where does customer feedback come into play?

You try to glean any piece of information that you think is going to be helpful to you. Obviously customers are a wealth of information. All kinds of people write in and give suggestions and it helps quite a bit to see if you are on track. If you screw up a bit, and sometimes we do — maybe you’ll burn a batch of coffee and they’ll put it in a bag instead of throwing it away — we hear it from the customers. So that just helps us to realize that we may have some concerns and we need to address them.

What can a leader do to communicate the vision to employees?

You need buy-in from the people. People have to believe you. You have to be honest and credible and transparent. They have to know that you have their best interests in mind. Everything you do has to be with a win-win mentality. I’ve always tried to put myself into the shoes of the other person, whether it’s somebody that works with us or our customer or our potential customer or vendor. And that I’ve found has helped quite a bit. What I try to do is seek first to understand and then to be understood. If you really get to understand somebody else’s point of view and then work from there, they’ll really appreciate that and they’ll help you achieve your goals.

HOW TO REACH: Burke Brands LLC/Café Don Pablo, (877) 436-6722 or www.cafedonpablo.com

Published in Florida

When it comes to the innovation process, executives and product developers often come to the conclusion that the customer’s voice is actually the least influential aspect of the idea generation process. In many situations managers with the responsibility of coming up with new product ideas have conducted focus groups with customers in which customers are asked to identify what new products they would like to see or what kind of new products they need. These focus groups generally produce disappointing results by severely limiting the creative scope of the idea being developed. As managers experience this, they conclude that the voice of the customer (as expressed through focus groups or surveys) doesn’t add value to the idea generation process.

The most striking example of this is Steve Jobs who has consistently indicated that focus groups with customers do not produce creative, groundbreaking product solutions.

And he is absolutely correct. On the other hand, Steve Jobs has also been very clear that all of his breakthrough innovations have come from listening to the customer. This apparent paradox reflects the confusion over what is meant by “Voice of the Customer,” the role it can play in the new product idea generation process and the methods or tools that can correctly capture Voice of the Customer for this process.

Smart Business learned more from James Martin, Ph.D., Associate Dean and Professor of Marketing at John Carroll University.

What is meant by ‘Voice of the Customer’?

VOC simply means that you are including the customer in the creation of value for the customer. The process of co-creation of value requires in-depth knowledge of the customer that drives management decision making. In many applications VOC is used to make adjustments in product or service offerings.  With surveys or focus groups with customers of current products, a focus on satisfaction with specific features of the product or service leads to insightful value-added ‘tweaks’ to the product. Focus groups and surveys work well in these situations because customers are familiar with the decision problem and these tools are designed so that customers can provide their direct input.

However, these tools don’t work well when the customer is not familiar with the decision problem with which the manager is working, as is the case with the idea generation process for developing an innovation. That doesn’t mean you don’t need to use VOC. Quite the opposite. You still need the perspective of the customer if you are going to create something that has true value for that customer.

So you have to ask the questions: What do you really need to know from the customer? What is in their perspective that can inform your innovation creation process? When you answer these questions, you are using VOC.

What are the tools that you can use to capture this kind of VOC?

Let’s back up a bit and talk about why you should want VOC for the idea generation process. Developing innovation is about creating real value in people’s lives. In other words, your innovation will be constructing real meaning that makes customers’ lives better. This is what creates a breakthrough innovation that has built-in sustainable and profitable growth, and it requires VOC.

To use VOC in this situation, you need to be ‘in’ the experience of your customers. Whether you are in a B2C or B2B situation, it’s not about asking them what they think would be a good new product. It’s about understanding their lives, their values and how they see the world. And this understanding needs to be in a format that informs your process.

How can businesses best understand their customers’ experience?

There are a number of tools that can put you ‘in’ the experience of your customers. There are two main tools that I think can help managers understand the process of being a customer and identify ways to add value to that process.

The first tool can be referred to as mapping the cognitive script of the customer. This captures, in detail, all of the behavioral steps the customer goes through to purchase and consume a product or service, including a) pre-purchase thinking, b) the actual in-store (or online) experience and c) actual consumption of the product.  To capture this form of VOC, you can observe the customer, talk to the customer, or, better yet, live (or work) in their experience. Once you are ‘in’ this experience, you can then begin to creatively generate ideas for how to make the script more valued. A classic, and simple, example is pay-at-the-pump technology for gas stations. Prior to pay-at-the-pump, the process of paying for gas detracted from the experience of buying gas. Introduction of pay-at-the-pump adds significant value to the purchase and consumption process at gas stations and changed the script for the better.

The second tool can be thought of as ‘value-mapping.’ Here you identify one or more core values that actually define meaning in people’s lives and drive their behavior. You then map those values to the skill sets of your organization. A method for capturing these core values is called laddering, which is a process of exploring what objects are important in a person’s life and what values those objects represent that make them important.

Going back to Steve Jobs and Apple, the first step of value-mapping might have identified two core values: a) the hedonic pleasure of aesthetic experiences and b) freedom. Mapping these values back to the skill sets of Apple would (and probably did) lead them to the breakthrough innovations of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

Using VOC in the idea generation process is critical for developing breakthrough innovations that create true and lasting value for customers. However, you have to be clear about what you mean by VOC and how you can best capture it.

James Martin, Ph.D., is Associate Dean and Professor of Marketing, Boler School of Business, John Carroll University. Reach him at jhmartin@jcu.edu.

Published in Cleveland