The Best Marketing Strategy Ever

A business owner asked me the other day, what was the best marketing strategy ever?  I did not have to think very long.  To me, the answer is Southwest Airlines in its early days.   In a day when Southwest was competing with industry giants to launch a new airline, they broke through and succeeded by demonstrating that they were the airline you wanted to fly by doing the following things.Continue reading

Times They are a Changing – A day of GM Goodbyes

This morning – October 1, 2009, a reminder popped up on my calendar.  Today was the day my brother Rick retired officially from General Motors after 30 years.  He started in the Newark, Delaware plant at the age of 18, the day after his birthday.  Over the past three decades, he saw many changes, slow downs, strikes, and lay offs; but, he also saw innovations in manufacturing and new automotive technologies evolve. 

Richard-J.-KoerberHe started at GM in a time when working as a GM employee was a safe bet for the future and retires in a time when many have to wonder what comes next.  But, through it all, he was a hard working and dedicated employee, who delivered value, and through his working years at GM, bought a home, raised a family, and now in his ‘retirement’ years plans to focus his energies on building another business – his own. 

I’m proud of him.  He’s a great example of what it means to grow up in a GM Family.  And I know that his own business will prosper because he brings to it a dedication to customer service and quality  that will make his customers keep coming back and even more important – tell their friends about him.

Also today, I saw an article pop up from AdAge with another footnote to the GM Story.  This one too was another goodbye – After Talks to Sell Fall Through, GM Says Goodbye to Saturn.  The story chronicles Saturn’s story through it’s ads.  It’s dedication to innovation and service, the commitment it had to its customers and in many ways the feeling of engagement it’s employees, dealers and customers had in turn with Saturn.     Now with the Penske deal falling through, soon Saturn will be no more.

Saturn was once the shining star of General Motors, yet through years of corporate in-fighting and internal politics between the GM car divisions and the resulting challenges created for Sayurn, the fledgling brand could not grow to fulfill its promise.  Now Saturn is becoming ‘GM’s orphaned child’ – with no opportunity for a new homecoming on the horizon. 

Saturn employees and dealers put together a valiant fight to save something they believed in – a quality product, a new way of doing business, and commitment to giving the customer what they want through partnerships as shown in this – one of the last Saturn commercials.  Unfortunately, it looks like this time, they could not win the battle.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkikIApaP1s]

2009 Saturn SkyIn kind of an odd twist –

the last car my brother ever built at the GM Newark Delaware plant,

was a Saturn SKY. 

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

Curing Healthcare – you have to start somewhere

As a leader, one of the most damaging things that you can do in times of crisis is to do NOTHING.  As I have been listening to and reading about the ongoing national healthcare debate, one question keeps running through my mind.

When are we going to stop talking about it …

and start doing something about it?

At one point in my career, from December of 2006 to December of 2008, I had the honor of serving as the CEO of ASBA, the Arizona Small Business Association, and on the Board of Trustees at NSBA, the National Small Business Association.

As the owner of a small business myself, I had seen the challenges faced by small business owners when it came to the accessibility and affordability of healthcare insurance.  At  the time, it was a personal issue I dealt with and not a major focus of my attention.

Then came my role at ASBA  and a day when solving the healthcare problem, at least for small businesses in the State of Arizona, became MY problem.  This video is a clip from a talk I gave on the topic of Healthcare when ASBA  launched its solution for Arizona Small Businesses in 2008.  It started like this…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKOfXlB_3Wo]

Putting the health back into healthcare in the United States is not a simple problem.  In fact it’s complexity is staggering.  Here are just a few of it’s components – I know I will miss many more.  Don’t pillory me for it.  Instead I encourage you to add to the list in the comments section of this post. (For more information, click the links to articles in each description.)

Structural issues

Right or wrong, our current system is is supported as an insurance based system.  Healthcare is paid for by Medicare/Medicaid (public insurance) or private insurance in most cases.  For those without adequate coverage, the costs can be financially crippling and their unpaid bills get paid by everyone else in the form of higher premiums as explained in this article from Arizona State University’s Knowledge@WPCarey.

Ethical Issues

What should we do?  Who should we help?  What should we pay for?  What should we not?  The answers to these questions reach into much deeper ethical, moral, and legal discussions on highly volatile issues including aging, illegal immigration, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, and the quality and accessibility of care.  An that’s just the tip of the iceberg! The study of BioEthics now even has it’s own Presidential Commission.

Financial Issues

If you think this is all about health, think again.  The healthcare crisis in the US is a major economic issue as illustrated in this article from Forbes on July 3, 2009.  In this report from the Congressional Budget Office total spending on health care in the economy has doubled over the last 30 years to a current level of about 16% of GDP. CBO estimates that this percentage will double again over the next 25 years to 31% of GDP.  Today, it is estimated that as much as 60% of personal bankruptcies in the US are tied to healthcare related issues.  But if we do not get the costs,  and the resultant Federal deficits under control the fall out could be the greatest financial mess the world has ever seen.

Solving the problem will need to address how to find new cost efficiencies in healthcare delivery, behavioral changes among the US population to reduce health risk factors, new protocols for treatment and cost management, and many many more issues.

We will also need to redesign our reimbursement systems.  Today, the set payment schedules for Medicare and Medicaid are below the actual costs the doctors and hospitals incur.  The short fall is then passed along to the costs charged to private insured and private payers  – a practice called cost shifting.  But as we have seen, even this has not been enough to keep many medical centers and hospitals financially healthy – see this July 7, 2008 article from the Washington Post for a good explanation of the problem and since this was written the problem has only gotten worse.

Technology Issues

In recent years, we have looked to technology to solve other problems – it will work for healthcare too, right?  Unfortunately not.  While US healthcare, for those that can afford it, is some of the best in the world, each advancement has a price and contributes to the rising healthcare costs.

E-medical records, a popular topic earlier this year when major funding was allocated as part of the stimulus package by Congress will pay off over time, but not in the immediate future as it carries a high price for implementation.  This presentation by Michael H. Zaroukian, MD, PhD, FACP of Michigan State University helps break it down.

Break throughs in Pharma and Biotech will help us improve quality of life, aid in early detection, and treatment of chronic diseases.  (A major portion of today’s healthcare spend.) But, today’s legislation has little to do with funding support for these technologies at they level that will be required to really speed up the process.

State Sovereignty Issues

Many of the factors that are driving up the costs of the healthcare system are legislated on a state by state basis.  Congress will have a problem making any real change here without overriding or preempting many state laws.  These include the costs of defensive medicine and malpractice insurance costs that will continue to escalate until we reform our tort systems at the state level. In addition, mandates on a state by state level require that certain care or services be provided and covered.  Each and every one of these items has a cost.  Thus the cost of providing healthcare can fluctuate significantly from state to state.

Personal Responsibility Issues

If you have noticed, so far, the focus has been heavily on what ‘they’ have to do to fix the problem.  But there is another major issue that can not be overlooked – and that is our own personal behaviors.  It has been said that the US has a sick care system, not a health care system.  But the shift from sick care to a health focus is not in the government’s hands, it’s in ours.  It has been estimated that regular check ups can play a major role in early detection of chronic disease and that early detection leads to major cost savings – not to mention longer lives.  Yet at the same time, a large majority of those of us who have a wellness plan as part of our health insurance don’t even use it. Health in the US population did not get a great score on it’s report card in 2008 as you can read in this article from Time.

Uncertainty Issues.

And running through it all is  the issue of uncertainty.  None of us know what is going to happen at this point.  Businesses are putting off health insurance decisions and states are in a quandary as to what they should be doing – if they could even pay for it.

Hospitals, doctors, and insurance companies alike are delaying the launch of new programs that could help make a difference because they have yet to learn the new rules of the game.  Basically, progress has stopped!

The Ugly Truth

No one piece of Federal legislation will have the magic prescription to solve this problem.  And for all the shouting, the final bill that will be voted on by the House and the Senate does not even exist yet.  Then and if they can get it through Congress this session, it will be an ongoing process for years to structure all the regulations, set up systems, start a never ending process of revisions, and have any lasting effect.

No matter what we do or how the system changes, some will benefit more than others. Some people will pay more, and some will pay less.  New systems will emerge, and others will fail.

But we will never have any improvements if we do not take the first step.  And If we fail to make improvements, our healthcare structure will ultimately fail.  We already  know that the foundation is seriously damaged.

To wrap things up, there is an old fable about a man who claimed he could eat an elephant.  When other’s scoffed that it was impossible to do so, he simply shared his strategy…

You do it one bite at a time.

Well today, putting the health back into healthcare is our elephant – and it is well past time we took that first bite.

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay Tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

Missing the Innovation Train

Innovation – doing something in a new way to make life better for the people who matter – is a wonderful thing – unless you happen to be the one who missed the train when it pulled out from the station.

KOERBERThat’s what happened to a once great family business, Koerber’s Beer.

Hey – you may be thinking – that name sounds familiar.  Yes, Koerber’s was once our family business run by my grandfather William G. (Bill) Koerber and his brothers.

Koerber’s Beer and the other brands, including Friar’s Ale and later a new innovation, Malt Liquor led the brand portfolio.

Grandpa’s brother, Clarence “Click” Koerber, invented malt liquor and began production at the Grand Valley Brewing Company in Ionia, Michigan some time around 1937. Great  Uncle Click named his magic brew Clix Malt Liquor.

The family business managed to survive through two World Wars, Prohibition, and the Great Depression.  Instead, it was an innovation in the brew master’s art that led to it’s demise.

That change was the imagepractice of increasing the preservative content in beer and ale.  By adding additional preservatives, competing breweries were able to ship their beers for greater distances, store the product for longer periods of time, and increase shelf life for distributors and retailers taking advantage of major economies of scale.

There was only one problem, it affected the taste of the beer.  Koerber’s brand was associated with Age, Strength, and Purity.  Grandpa, as brew master was sure that no one would buy let alone want to drink the lesser product.   And Grandpa was wrong!

By 1949, the last bottle of Koerber’s beer was crated and shipped from the plant in  Toledo, Ohio.  The factory was closed.  What today we would call a series of micro breweries, Koerber’s, and it’s sister company Grand Valley Brewing could not compete with the mega brewers who had emerged.

By the time I came along, in 1960, the only Koerber’s beer that was still in production came from the mini brewery that was hidden behind the secret wall in the Dutch Room off the boat well in Grandpa’s home at Grayhaven on the Detroit River. But that’s a story for another day.

So when you hear the whistle blow and see the innovation train pull into the  station, be sure to have your ticket ready so you can board.  You don’t want to be left behind!

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay Tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

Asking for Help…

Often one of the most important lessons we learn as business owners, innovators, and leaders is how and when to ask for help.

In 2001, I was VP of Global Supplier Contracts at Avnet, Inc. a Fortune 500 global distributor of electronic components and computers.

I had an idea for a new kind of business and took the idea to Avnet Chairman and CEO, Roy Vallee. We discussed the potential benefits to the company and what I wanted to do to make it happen. He told me to “…take the idea and run with it. Take it as far as you can and come back to me if you need help.” There are 3 components to this advice:

1) develop new ideas;

2) plan and take action;

3) ask for help.

At the time, for me, #3 was the MOST important. Up to that point, I had done everything for the project on my own. To make it viable, I had to find the people and resources that I lacked and get them to be part of the solution. A year later, Avnet decided that the time was not right to proceed with the project. But I was not ready to give it up.

So, I  took Roy’s advice and asked for help.

First I asked Avnet’s permission to take some of the ideas I had developed and create my own business. They said yes.

Then I looked for and found the best people and resources to partner with to build that business. They said yes too.

The result, CorePurpose, Inc. has been supporting other businesses in their journey along the growth path since July of 2002. Our whole business is built around having the right resources and knowing how to get help when you need it.”

Applying the Lesson

For many of us, asking for help is not an easy thing to do.  Many still believe that asking for help makes you appear weak or out of control.  Contrary to this belief, asking for help at the right time and for the right reasons is NOT a sign of weakness, but rather can be a sign of confidence, strength and savvy resource management.

Few organizations or projects succeed without some form of assistance today – be it leadership, financial, supply chain, staffing, technology resources, or a myriad of other needs.  Interestingly, the strategic process we go through in developing our program or project can also be a great process to follow when determining how to go about finding the right help at the right time.

Develop new ideas

Look at each step of your current strategic plan or program map.  Identify the areas where the process or program can be strengthened through outside support or other partnerships.  Look at each step of your process not only in light of how a strategic partner can benefit you but also how, by working together, the partner will benefit too.

Plan and Take Action

Evaluate the things that you are doing that might be done as well as you are currently doing them or can be done even better by others.

Start by identifying outside resources for non core activities and then evaluate how you can better utilize your existing resources by redeploying them into core areas of strength or differentiation within your organization.  Strategic partnerships like these are a resource investment for you and the partner.  Be realistic in calculating the ROI for both parties.

Put together presentations you can make to potential strategic partners with a focus on how each of you will benefit from the partnership.  Then build your target partner list and start scheduling the presentations.

Asking for help.

Following this process, asking for help moves from sending out an ‘S.O.S.’ or distress call to proactively building relationships where both parties benefit.  Now, you are  not just asking someone to help you with a business challenge, you are offering to help them overcome one of theirs.

So, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Look at your business on a regular basis to determine how by asking for help, you can make your business stronger, more cost efficient, or more financially sound.  You’ll never know, until you ask!

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay Tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

Recipe for Growth – A Pound of Leadership and a Dash of Innovation

In today’s economy, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a magic recipe for growth?  Just pull out your business cook book, follow the instructions, pop it in the oven and enjoy success.  Unfortunately it’s not quite that easy.  If it was, we would all master the recipe early and reap the benefits.

j0402524[1]But in reality it is not that simple.  Business success requires a unique mix of ingredients and process that fluctuates with changes in our internal and external business environment.

I remember, when I was a kid, my Grandmother telling me, “If you want to eat, you need to learn to cook.”  Well, in the world of business – the same can be said.

Each recipe starts with a goal in mind.

You have a physical or mental picture of what your desired result will be whether it is scrambled eggs, a mushroom quiche, or chocolate chip cookies.

The second section is the list of ingredients

If I am making my favorite, warm, gooey Chocolate Chip Cookies – there are some basic foundational ingredients   – butter, sugar, flour, eggs.

I need a leavening agent like  baking soda or baking powder to make my batter rise.

Flavoring – like vanilla or almond extract

And differentiators like chocolate chips, nuts, coconut, or raisins to make my cookies stand out.

I also need to focus on the quality of my ingredients to ensure a great result.  Lot’s of people may have the same recipe – but the quality of the ingredients I use can make my cookies better than the rest.

Apply Energy

And then I need to apply just the right amount of energy to make it all blend together. Plus a different kind of energy to bake it into a finished product.

Results

Only when the cookies are out of the oven, cooled, and in my mouth will I know if I have obtained the desired results. If it’s not perfect – I can always try again.

Applying it to business.

When it comes to our businesses the processes are not that different.  We need…

A goal – that clear picture of what we are trying to achieve.

The right base ingredients – a product, a  service, a market to serve and people to do the work.

A leavening agent – No baking soda here – this the the values that you and your people employ as you follow the plan.

Flavoring – your marketing and communications strategy

Differentiators – the unique aspects or innovations that you bring to the equation and to your customers.

To Add Energy – in the right proportions at the right time – and that’s where leadership comes in.   Not enough energy and your result is half baked.  Too much and your result is burned to a crisp.

Don’t forget to focus on the quality of your ingredients to ensure a great result.  Lot’s of people may have the same recipe – but the quality of the ingredients you use can make YOUR BUSINESS better than the rest.

There is a recipe after all.

You just have to keep experimenting until you find yours.

So, what are you going to mix up and pop in the oven?

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay Tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker

Looking Outside

One of the biggest mistakes we can make as innovators and business leaders is to assume that we automatically know what our customers want, need, and are willing to buy.

readysetgrow2I learned that lesson the hard way in 2004 when I came up  with a ‘brilliant’ idea.

CorePurpose, Inc., the company I founded in 2002, would run a 12 month lecture series with thought leaders from across the country.

We were smack dab in the middle of a down turn.  People were looking for answers and strategies to help turn things around.  And of course – I knew who had the answers.  I would bring them to town, one each month, and help all the small businesses by giving them access to ideas and talent as a group that they could not afford individually. I was really excited!

The folks at the Phoenix Business Journal also thought it was a great idea and featured the program with a full page story to kick things off in January 2, 2004.  Doug Brodman and my friends  at AVI Communications created an incredible 12 month interactive marketing campaign highlighting each month’s speaker in addition to the ads (like the one above)that would run each month in the Business Journal .  We had a sure fire hit!

Well, maybe not.  While we had gotten great feedback in designing the program as to the topics of interest, the areas of need, and the program’s price, we failed to ask one key question:

Would they, as business owners, make the investment of their time to attend twelve half day sessions throughout the year?

It turns out that for many in our target market, the answer was no!  Instead of standing room only crowds, the room was half full each month.  Still, we held to our commitment to provide all twelve sessions.  Those that attended loved the program.  CorePurpose got lots of critical acclaim from the economic development community and even won awards.

Through out the year, we kept asking potential customers – many of whom we had talked to during the design process – what we needed to do differently.  In almost every case we got the same answer.

They could not afford the time away from the office when times were so tough.  The perceived benefit did not exceed the perceived cost… of their time!

In the end, the program lost over $60,000 dollars because I assumed I knew the answer to one very important question and did not ask it.

Back then, that was a BIG hit to take.

So what is the moral to this story?

When you are designing products or services, be sure that you look outside your organization and ask ALL the important questions.

Get with professionals to help you design accurate assessments of market needs AND your target customer’s willingness to adopt what you are creating before you commit to investing your time and money to create a product or service that customers may say they want – but may not be willing or able to buy.

And for me – as a personal reminder – this ad has a place of honor on my office wall.  It stands as a reminder to be sure to look outside of the company, to talk to customers and prospects, and to ask all the right questions – FIRST.

Thanks for stopping by.  Stay Tuned…

Joan Koerber-Walker