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Simplicity is key.

May 21, 2013


But it’s not easy.

Scenario: You set out to make a list of the top 3 strategic initiatives and end up with 20. You just can’t help adding the rejects to the bottom of the list…or the little things. Just in case they make it. It makes everyone feel better to have them captured, so you keep them. But in fact, there’s nothing so demoralizing for the team as the list that never gets done. We need to stop thinking of it that way.

The top initiatives are just that. It doesn’t have to include the little things. The little things are the things we do everyday to support the big things.

Does your company excel at identifying the top few things? One company I worked for called it the “critical few initiatives”. It made it very clear, at all levels of the organization, how to make the right decision about what to focus on, everyday.

It’s not so different from having a clear brand position: once you have it, everyone can use it as a guiding light for behavior, decisions and how they articulate the voice of the brand and apply it to what they specifically do every day.

But why is it so hard to do? How do you do it well?

It’s hard because it requires sacrifice. You can’t do it all at once, with the resources you have. You have to know what’s really important. Startups do this everyday- they have a few good people laser-focused on a clear goal. So they get it done. I’ve been with big companies and little companies, and I can tell you that it’s not size that defines a clear business strategy- it’s courage. That’s right- it’s the courage to take a stand on what’s going to drive your business forward, rather than a mega  diner-sized menu that will have something for everyone, and nothing spectacular for anyone.

J.Crew does this extraordinarily well.

Mickey Drexler, in one of his recent features in Fast Company, says: “Simplicity is very difficult to achieve.” But he has done it- over the past 10 years, with Jenna Lyons as the extraordinary creative lead- they have completely reinvented one of America’s favorite brands. They have a vision, and it has paid off, big time- with Michelle Obama and Jessie Jackson (this Jessie, not the reverend), among many others, as devoted fans to the brand. Why? They don’t do just what’s expected. They keep it fresh and creative. And they don’t try to have something for everyone. Each collection has a point of view. It has become the single most coveted American fashion brand at an affordable price point. You don’t achieve that by being indecisive about your priorities.                                                                                      You can find links to Fast Company’s recent features on Mickey and Jenna, here.

Learning Agile Methodologies helped shape my thinking about how to keep it simple. It’s a flexible, yet highly structured way to prioritize and execute on an on-going basis. It requires decisive action and attention on a daily basis to remain focused. And you can still keep your wish list (your backlog), on the fringes to pull from when each new sprint planning meeting comes up. This isn’t a long term strategic planning tool- but it’s a great way to organize the work to support your key strategies. What it does for strategic planning is give you a better sense of how much time things take- how to structure the research around your plans and whether they’re achievable in the desired time period. It’s a great way to support your strategy company wide, and keep everyone focused.

But it all starts with keeping it simple. You have to start by defining the high level goals. And then constructing a plan of the things you need to have in place to get there. And then editing, editing, editing down the list to the things that REALLY matter. And then staying focused, every day, on those things.

It’s not easy, to plan to do less. But what I’ve found in the past year is that planning to do less actually empowers you to do more- both because you don’t have to rethink your priorities every single day, and because  you make a bigger impact with a few great things than with a zillion insignificant ones.

Aspiration or discrimination?

May 17, 2013


All this bad press about Mike Jeffries and his reprehensible statements has created a firestorm in social media.  Has he gone too far this time? Well, yeah. He always does. But…

Is Abercrombie bad because of what he said,  or because of what they do?

Indeed, his comments are awful. While I could argue that Abercrombie’s aspirational brand vision goes too far (something that’s been hotly debated for years- ever since they launched the magalog with naked teens on the cover), it’s not a new marketing tactic to use shock-value to get media attention. Abercrombie has always pushed the limits, and in fact, revels in going over. But they’re not really doing anything new, now. They’ve always marketed the brand for cool, skinny people. They’ve always had teeny-weeny little sizes that could fit your toddler. So why is everyone so hopping mad about it, now?

Because he crossed the line. He didn’t just cross it, he leapt over it.  He said what no one would say. And defies the ideals of inclusion, acceptance and diversity. In the 2006 Salon feature that’s been so widely publicized this past few weeks, the interviewer asks him how important “sex and sexual attraction are in what he calls the ’emotional experience’ he creates” and Jeffries says:

 “It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

(“The man behind Abercrombie & Fitch“, Benoit Denizet-Lewis for Salon, 2006)

Is this exclusionary strategy so different from other high profile fashion brands? Or is he just brutally honest? Let’s focus on the sizing issue. Abercrombie’s sizing is notoriously small. It doesn’t carry extra large sizes for women at all. Even the men’s sizes are downsized: a men’s size XL sweatshirt fits like a women’s size 12.

If you look at the sizing for many upscale fashion retail brands, it’s not really that different. Abercrombie defines a Large as equivalent to a size 10. Many fashion brands define a large as a size 10-12. Some go even smaller, defining it as an 8-10.  And others (the less trendy) define it as a 12-14 or even a 14-16. There’s no standardization for sizing, and we all know it, as frustrating as it is. It always differs by brand. Some are just cut slim- others more generous. We all know the brands we can wear, and the ones we can’t.  So Abercrombie is hardly unique when it comes to size range.

Considering the brand issue, Abercrombie is not unique in having a passionate and specific vision of its aspirational lifestyle and target customer. Countless fashion brands have an aspirational look that celebrates, young, thin, beautiful women, with a target customer that exemplifies the aspirational lifestyle. That’s not news. The key difference? Most brands don’t celebrate the exclusion. What’s hateful about the Jeffrie’s incident is that he didn’t focus on what’s good about his brand- he focused on what’s bad about the people that don’t fit into his brand image.  And that’s bad business.

Jeffries has since posted an apology on facebook that reads:

“I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.”

jeffrie's apology

This isn’t the first time Jeffries has hurt the brand he worked so hard to build. He’s been dragged through the mud on many other occasions for discrimation against…well, just about every group except his target audience. So far, Abercrombie has always weathered the storm. But I wonder, will the cool kids really want to keep buying into this? Time will tell.

What’s your SERP?

May 3, 2013


Are people finding your website? If your top keywords are not showing up within the first few positions on Google, the likelihood is that people will go elsewhere. Position matters.

What’s your SERP? It’s your Search engine rank position. You should make sure your most important search terms are on the first page- the goal is to be #1. Certainly within the first 3- which will get the most consumer attention (not everyone agrees with that. I once interviewed an SEO agency who said they refused to work for a client who said their goal was #3. They didn’t want to work for someone who was satisfied with being second or third best).

If you haven’t optimized for SEO on your site and don’t know where to start, here are a few basics:

1. Identify your top non-branded keywords.

Why? Your branded keywords should naturally rank well, because your own brand is going to be more prevalent on your site than anyone else’s that’s talking about you. You should check that, but it’s typically the case. And you’ll improve this in any case, by following the tips below, which include your brand name in key text placements.

Your non-branded keywords are the ones to optimize for. If you sell boots, for instance, you would want to rank well for ‘boot’ searches. But as you can imagine, it will be hard to beat the huge retailers out there who sell more boots than you. As I write this, the top natural results (the ones that show up under the paid and ‘sponsored’ results) are Zappos, UGG(R) and Steve Madden.

How to identify your top keywords? Start making your list based on a few things: Your top products and categories (i.e. Boots, fuzzy boots, warm boots, shearling boots). If you use an analytics program for your website, you can easily see what terms customers are coming to your site with. There are also some great tools that help you identify the ‘most searched’ terms that relate to yours. Promediacorp has a free tool that’s easy to use- you can see it here.

keyword suggester

Just plug in your term, and you can see what consumers are searching for. You should choose to optimize the ones that are most relevant to your business. It’s not just about going for the one with the highest number of searches- you need to choose words that are relevant to your brand and website, that you have content to support. Your ranking is based on many factors (and Google is always tweaking its algorithms to try to ensure relevancy based on the content on your site). One interesting way to learn is to then search the top terms yourself to see who comes up. In the example I gave above, it was Zappos, UGG and Steve Madden. This way you know who you’re up against.

2. Add title tags and meta descriptions

The title tag is the text at the top of your browser window that identifies the page of the site you’re on: Title tag

It’s important to have keywords that are uniquely relevant to each page you’re on. This text will show up in your google results (unless google finds something it likes better on the page), so make sure it’s something that makes sense to your customers. And be sure to keep it to fewer than 70 characters- anything longer than that will get cut-off by Google. If you’re on a page that sells fuzzy shearing boots by the Boot Store, your title tag might look like this: FUZZY SHEARLING BOOTS  | THE BOOT STORE

You can find more information about title tags, here:

There are lots of easy word-counters online- you can Google it. This is one I use: you just plug your text in, and it tells you what the character count is:

The meta-description is in the code of the page (the customer doesn’t see it on your site). But any front end developer will know how to add it. The description should use  relevant keywords for the page, but these are not so much to help your ranking as they are the descriptions that Google is most likely to pick up and show under your search result. It should describe the page and give the customer a reason to want to select your listing- if you have a standard offer, or value proposition. The optimal length is approximately 155 characters or fewer. In our boot store example, the meta-description might say:

Find the best selection of fuzzy Shearling Boots in sizes for men, women and 
children. Order today for Free Overnight Shipping at The Boot Store.

You can learn more about meta-descriptions, here:

3. Add a site map and XML site map

Your site map tells customers what you offer if they look for a link to it in the bottom navigation of your site- it’s a best practice to have one. Google crawls your site map, and so it’s beneficial for SEO as well. An XML site map is one that the customers don’t see- it’s a behind the scenes site map in the code that tells Google everything that’s on the site. This is an important thing to have in helping improve your search rank.  You’ll need a developer’s help to build one, but Google has some easy tools for this.

4. Add content

One of the many factors that go into your Google ranking is relevancy. Have a lot of pages to support your products, brand and messaging. Create value-add content that talks about how things are made, how to get the right fit, and more. But make sure it makes sense. If Google searches the page you titled “FUZZY SHEARLING BOOTS” and doesn’t find any text talking about fuzzy shearling boots- it’s not going to give you much credit for the page. Your images should have alt tags to support your keywords. You should have text on the page to support your keywords. Don’t overdo it- Google will penalize you for trying to trick the system by planting lots and lots of repetitive keywords on the page. Do use text instead of graphics for your messaging. Do add a text block at the bottom of the page that describes the page and talks about your value propositions, the selection, the quality, the options- and add a few links to important pages that relate to it. All of this should be believable and customer friendly. If it seems forced, it won’t be good for your brand, your customers, or Google.

5. Don’t use flash.

Sorry. But Google can’t read it. All of your flash pages in a section will read as a single page to Google- you don’t get any credit for them. Use HTML5 instead.

6. Read up on it…

This is just the beginning. Here are some great resources to fill you in on how Search engines work, how to optimize for SEO, and what you should do to create a search friendly site.

My favorite site for learning the basics: See the Beginner’s guide to SEO on SEO.moz– it’s a great resource.

Screen Shot 2013-05-03 at 8.27.44 PM

6. Make a habit of it

SEO is an on-going effort. You won’t ever be done. Your ranking will vary day to day, week to week, as your pages and other sites change and become optimized or out of date. Make a checklist  your team can follow for every new page added to the site. Remember to update your site map periodically to keep it relevant. And make sure you’re changing your content regularly. I’ve pages lose a #1 ranking over the course of a few months, presumably because the content was static. Use a tracking tool to keep an eye on your top search terms. SEO.moz has a good one, at a reasonable rate. I’m sure there are other good ones out there. The important thing is to keep an eye on it, and to continue to optimize.

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