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Archive for June 22nd, 2009

Effective Search Trumps Brand: Glimmerings of a Digital Renaissance

Posted by Bob Warfield on June 22, 2009

I’m just back from a week long family vacation in the Big Apple to celebrate our 25th anniversary.  It was a blast, and as always, its great to get out into the world, see new things, meet new people, and think new thoughts.  I’ll have several blog posts to share on these new thoughts, and this is the first.  It begins with a brief observation by my kids. 

We stayed at a wonderful little hotel right on Central Park South called the Helmsley Park Lane.  Lots to see and do within walking distance, and we also availed ourselves of the excellent mass transit the City has to offer.  Along the way, we wanted to maximize our sampling of the great restaurants Manhattan has to offer.  Having made sure to select choices that appealed both to adults and kids (well heck, I enjoyed our quest for best Pizza too, I must admit!), I was surprised when my kids actually started to register pity for the mega-brands.  “How can McDonalds or Burger King survive here with all this great food?” they asked.

I never thought I’d hear that.  Normally we battle to avoid having them drag us into those places.  Now they were actively pitying the mega-brands of all things.  What was up with that? 

It got me thinking about the nature of what a brand is, and kids are a great microcosm from which to think of it.  Brands are largely about two things.  One is the safety and security of knowing you’ve chosen a brand that is a known quantity.  That McDonald’s hamburger or Starbucks coffee will taste just the same no matter which store you wander in to, all over the world even.  The experience is predictable, and if you like it, you know you can seek it out almost without thinking.  The second things brands do is signal to others that you have good taste.  Brands are very much a social thing, in this respect.  We want to know our choice is a popular choice.  It makes it that much sweeter in many cases.  It allows the brands to charge a premium that is out of proportion to the real value of the product, in fact.

But somehow, this process broke down, at least a little bit, in our Manhattan soujourn.

I’ve always been a person who loves to find new things, loves choices, and in general, has been a little less brand conscious, perhaps.  But my kids are all about brand, especially when it comes to food.  Their fear is that they will be taken somewhere that has nothing they want to eat.  If you’re a parent, I’m sure you’re familiar with that concern!  They’re all about the safety, security, and predictability, which is ironic when you consider they’re young and should be trying everything under the sun before getting set in their ways.  Nevertheless, their behaviour is very obvious and easily understood, and it doesn’t just pertain to kids.

So what happened to break that mold?

They developed confidence in my iPhone, and in the research I had done in advance via Google.  Effective Search had trumped brand.  Let me explain how.

First was the research.  I spent a few hours on the Internet with Google and enrolling the whole family in the process of tracking down some great places to go for dinner.  I was respectful of the family’s preferences, and didn’t venture too far out on a culinary limb.  We only planned dinners that way, and relied on spontaneity for breakfast, lunch, and the inevitable snack or coffee when it was time to rest our weary feet.  But that spontaneity was fed by Effective Search as well.  Wherever we found ourselves, I was able to conjure up a list of food choices using Google Maps with search or the Yelp iPhone app.

The beautiful thing about Yelp is the ratings, and the ability to combine that with geo-awareness (i.e. it tapped into the iPhone’s GPS to know what was nearby) was brilliant.  Google needs to either start doing Yelp-like ratings or just buy Yelp.  It immensely adds to the whole search experience to have those ratings.  The other point I will add about the ratings is that they represent, almost subconsciously, that other function of brands, which is to signal what is popular.  

Of course this sort of approach is critical when you’re strangers in a strange land like we were in Manhattan.  And one could argue that dense urban environment begets more usefulness.  The latter, I think, is very true.  In the Pre-digital/Pre-mobile Age, people have to discover your business through either wandering in one day or hearing by word of mouth.  A dense urban environment facilitates both.  There are quite simply more people nearby than in the dispersed suburbia more common of other areas.  In the latter, we go out of our way to recreate a dense environment through the artiface of the shopping mall.

But let’s not think that the value of Effective Search ends outside that dense environment.  As a matter of fact, I’ll argue it’s even more important.  Manhattan is so competitive, and so dense, that it is hard not to find at least a few good restaurants.   As the fighter jocks like to say, it is a “target rich environment.”  Suburbia is not so blessed.  Mediocre establishments do better than they should precisely because there is less competition.  They can be big fish in small ponds.

I figured as soon as we returned to our small surfing community of Santa Cruz, California, the kids would forget all about the iPhone and Yelp.  But they didn’t.  We were sitting at breakfast the next morning (incidentally at a local pattiserie that beat anything we were able to find in Manhattan), and my son suddenly wanted to use Yelp to resolve a long running family dispute over where the best pizza in the area came from.  There’s that brand property of wanting to be seen as having made the popular choice.  As a 15 year old, my son is particularly keen on what’s popular and fashionable, or not.  Imagine his disappointment when his favorite scored lower than the rest of the family’s.  But imagine all of our surprise when we learned that the consistently best rated pizza place in the area was one we had never heard of that was not much further from our house than the other two!

I am convinced there are some essential takeaways for new ventures and small businesses from all of this.  First, your “brand” is going to be determined more by word of mouth (especially as enhanced by Social Media like Yelp) than it is by advertising.  That’s a good thing, since small businesses can’t afford much advertising.  A close corrollary is that Customer Service is going to be more important than ever, precisely because of that word of mouth.  The Internet will democratize the selection of who is good or bad, and it will spread the news like wildfire.  Make sure your news is good by treating all of your customers exceptionally well!

Second, it behooves you to spend some time thinking about how to get an Effective Search Advantage.  SEO is not going to be the answer.  Everyone is doing SEO.  You’re going to have to be more clever than that.  Ideally, you need a strategy of some kind right from your very beginnings.  For restaurants in Manhattan, geo-aware search is the thing that defines the pond’s boundaries and lets you be a big fish in that smallish pond.  It cuts through the spam.  What are other kinds of boundaries that will help you stand out in Effective Searching?

Real Time.  There is a tremendous amount of talk about Real Time on the Internet.  It’s pretty unfocused, but time establishes a boundary just like location.  What sort of business can you create where time becomes critically valuable?  The obvious one is tickets and other perishable inventory.  What do you have right now that won’t be available tomorrow to sell to those who need something right now?

Social Media:  What communities can you join and really stand out in?  Tackling this challenge can convey the dual benefits of creating boundaries to focus search in your direction as well as annointing your offerings as the popular choice by letting others weigh in with their opinions.  Social Boundaries can come in many forms.  They can be as a result of targeting a focused service like Yelp.  I’ll tell you right now I’d give a discount at my restaurant in exchange for a Yelp review no matter whether it was good or bad.  Just encourage the participation and make sure your service or product is good enough that the reviews are good.  I’d go out of my way to make sure I was plugged into every geo-aware tool I could find, in fact.  The beautiful thing is that reviews beget reviews and they’re pretty permanent.  Once you get the ball rolling it picks up speed.  You don’t have to incent reviews for very long to win.

There are bound to be lots of other ways to create boundaries like this.   Boundaries for the purpose of reducing the search space to a small enough dimension that your business can really stand out.  Seth Godin wrote a great piece today about avoiding the big domino and making sure the first small domino falls with the money and resources you have available today.  I think it captures this idea of reducing boundaries perfectly.  You don’t have the resources to start out trying to brand yourself like Coke.   The good news is that in the Digital Renaissance, it probably doesn’t even make sense to try.

Postscript:  NYC Dining Experiences, Good and Bad

Best Pizza:  We tried Totonno’s and one of the Original Ray’s (the one in Little Italy, on Prince St.).  Both were great, but Totonno’s was a revelation.  They were one of a list of pizza restaurants we had uncovered that seemed to be good candidates for the best.  What swayed me to choose Totonno’s was hearing about it in my favorite pizza cookbook “American Pie“, so I didn’t exclusively use the Internet.  Ray’s got picked so we could get a slice one day at lunch, and we knew we wanted to tour Little Italy and Chinatown, so it was convenient that this Ray’s was also one of the most highly rated.

Daniel:  My wife and I had dinner at Daniel because it was one of the top half dozen or so restaurants in Mahattan at the time I searched.  We were not disappointed!

The Good (Mitchel London), The Bad (Beauchon), and The Ugly (Fika):  As family, we love to go for pastry and coffee in the mornings.  I have to say, we had a hard time finding good pastry in Manhattan (I’ll be amazed if I don’t get lots of comments on this!).  Seemed like life would be good with Thomas Keller’s (he of the French Laundry) Beauchon nearby.  But despite the delightful appearance of the pastries, imagine our surprise to discover they were very stale.  Think Starbucks pastry stale (sorry Starbucks, love your coffee, but your pastry is terrible!).  Here is one where Yelp failed us, as Beauchon has a huge number of fabulous reviews.  Perhaps it was just a bad day.  Lucky for us, while pawing through the Beauchon reviews and trying to understand whether it had recently gone bad, I discovered a great little place right around the corner called Fika.  Great pastry and perhaps the best coffee we had in Manhattan (and we had a lot of great coffee!).  Fika was highly rated but much less well know.  It is a Swedish coffee place, and a wonderfully quaint little spot in an out of the way place.  I shouldn’t call it ugly, because it isn’t, but that fit my title.  The real outstanding choice though was Mitchel London.  The bad news is there is no place to sit, but this bakery had some amazing eats.  The kids made us get French Creullers there twice.  No place to sit?  No problem.  Buy a bag of doughnuts and head over to a nearby Starbucks for the coffee.  They don’t mind!

A tale of two Italians:  Nanni’s and Trattoria dell’Arte.  This was another surpise.  A good friend who has lived in NYC suggested Nanni’s.  Awesome little place.  I had been to Trattoria several times in the past on business trips to NYC, and loved its Antipasti–best I’ve had outside Italy.  Trattoria was a bit disappointing this trip though.  The service was indifferent, and while the Antipasti was good as always, the veal marsala and the pizza my kids ordered were good but not world-class. 

We wound up going back to Totonno’s a second night rather than try another new place.  We had a great conversation with our waitress the second time who it turns out was from San Diego and understood our mindset coming to NYC.  We chatted about what was great in NYC (pizza!  Italian) and what was still better in California (sea food, and especially sushi).  We brought up our pastry plight with her and her response was that she saw people in NYC as being more into bagels (so we had Murray’s and loved them) and saving the pastry for late night dessert rather than breakfast.

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