The crowdfunded product problem with PopSlate as an unfortunate case study

I’ve go in involved in a few crowdfunded products and some of them have worked out but the majority haven’t. The latest example was the high profile e-ink phone cover PopSlate. PopSlate got over $1 million dollars of funding and was widely covered by the media.

“popSLATE 2 is E-Ink for your iPhone done right.” – Slashgear

“It’s an evolution, not merely refinement.” – Wired

Generally I’ve found that they tend to fail for three (non-criminal) reasons:

  • They underestimated the cost or complexity for batch manufacture of items. They have problems with getting tooling moulds to work and have to go through iterations that burn up cash
  • They get gazzumped; their product is sufficiently easy to make that Chinese manufacturers who go through Indiegogo and Kickstarter for ideas get the product into market faster
  • The engineering is just too hard. This seems to have been the problem for PopSlate who couldn’t innovate and get their product into market as fast as new phones came out

On the face of it its a great idea, bringing the kind of dual screen technology to the iPhone that had been in the Yota phone for a number of years. Huawei had a similar snap-on e-ink back available for the the P9 handset in limited quantities.

popSLATE – The smart second screen on the back of your phone

PopSlate had already launched a mark I version of their product.  With the mark II version of their product PopSlate tried to do too much: they tried to make it a battery case but still ridiculously thin.  The following email was sent out on Saturday morning UK time:

Critical Company Update

This update provides serious and unwelcome news.

Based upon your support, we have spent the last year continuing to develop our vision for “always-on” mobile solutions. Our goal was to solve three fundamental issues with today’s smartphones: we wanted to simplify access to information, increase battery performance, and improve readability. Unfortunately, the significant development hurdles that we have encountered have completely depleted our finances, and we have been unable to raise additional funds in the current market. As a result, popSLATE does not have a viable business path forward.

This marks the end of a 5-year journey for our team, which started with a seed of an idea in 2012 and led to our quitting our jobs to start the company. Although we are very disappointed by the ultimate outcome and its implications for you as our backers, we are proud of our team, who worked tirelessly over the years to commercialize the first plastic ePaper display, globally ship thousands of popSLATE 1 devices as a first-in-category product, and re-imagine & further extend the platform with the second generation product. Despite a strong vision, high hopes, and very hard work, we find ourselves at the end of the journey.

We are out of money at this juncture for two key reasons. First, we have spent heavily into extensive development and preparation for manufacturing;  as you are aware, we hit some critical issues that multiplied the required spend, as described in previous updates.

Most recently, we learned that the fix for the Apple OTA issues would involve more significant redesign. While we initially suspected that the Lightning circuit was the culprit, it turned out that it was a much more fundamental issue.  Namely, our housing material is not compatible with Apple OTA requirements. You may think, “Wait, isn’t it just plastic?  Why would that be a problem?” While the housing is indeed largely plastic, we used a very special custom blend of materials that included glass fibers. The glass fibers were used to solve two issues, both of which were related to making the device super-thin: a) they enabled uniform, non-distortional cooling of the housing mold around our metal stiffener plate (the key component that makes popSLATE 2 thin but very strong) and b) they added tensile strength to the very compact form factor. Unfortunately, we have concluded that these added fibers are attenuating the RF signal and that we would have to spend additional cycles to tune a new blend with required modifications to the tooling. This is an expensive and timely process.

Second, we have been unsuccessful at raising additional financing, despite having vigorously pursued all available avenues since the close of our March Indiegogo campaign (including angels, VCs, Shark Tank and equity crowdfunding, both in the US and abroad). Many in our network of fellow hardware innovators have encountered this difficult new reality. You may have also seen the very public financial struggles of big-name consumer hardware companies—GoPro, Fitbit, Pebble, Nest and others—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article [link]. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the recent and sudden shutting down of Pebble, paragon of past crowdfunding success.

There is no way to sugarcoat what this all means:

  • popSLATE has entered into the legal process for dissolution of the company
  • Your popSLATE 2 will not be fulfilled
  • There is no money available for refunds
  • This will be our final update

While this is a very tough moment professionally and emotionally for us, it is obviously extremely disappointing for all of you who had believed in the popSLATE vision. Many of you have been with us since the March campaign, and a smaller set helped found the popSLATE community back in 2012. To you—our family, friends, and other unwavering backers—we are incredibly grateful for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support throughout the years. Just as importantly,  we deeply regret letting you down and not being able to deliver on our promise to you. We truly wish there were a viable path forward for product fulfillment and the broader popSLATE vision, but sadly we have exhausted all available options.

Sincerely yours,
Yashar & Greg
Co-founders, popSLATE

The problem as a consumer you have for much of these gadget is this:

If a product can be easily made in Shenzhen, it will be so you should be able to get it cheaper on lightinthebox or similar sites

If it can’t be turned out in a reasonable time, it has a low likelihood of succeeding

There have been successes of more hobby based products; I have a replica of Roland’s TB-303 synthesiser. It’s the kind of product that can be assembled whilst not relying a China-based supply chain. It also is based on well understood technology and there weren’t issues of with designing for very tight places or Apple’s requirements (in the case of iPhone’s accessories).

What about the poster child of Pebble? Pebble managed to go for longer with a sophisticated product but couldn’t withstand the gravity of declining sales in the wearables sector.

Oprah Time: Asian Godfathers by Joe Studwell

I’d read Joe Studwell’s How Asia Works over lunar new year. Studwell dealt directly with there reasons for East Asia’s economic growth and Southeast Asia’s failing to follow them.

Asian Godfathers

Studwell attached this same subject through through a different lens. In Asian Godfathers, he tells the story through Asia’s business tycoons; from the taipans of Hong Kong to Stanley Ho – the Macau gambling tycoon.

Cosmopolitan privileged people who where in the right place at the right time. Some of them had colourful origin stories as black marketers selling fake medicines and blockade runners. But they are just a side show in a wider panorama of political greed and incompetence. Asian Godfathers is more like Hotel Babylon than an economics analysis like How Asia Works, yet it delivers its message forcefully.

The mobile and telecoms industry and it’s progress

Just over 11 years ago I watched Charles Dunstone talk about Carphone Warehouse and the state of the industry at the LSE.

Sir Charles Dunstone at Huawei Ascend P6 launch

I came across the post by accident the other evening and wondered how well Dunstone’s view held up over the past decade or so.

On VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol)…

I think that the difference between Europe (particularly the UK) and the US is that VoIP will be very big in businesses, in residential homes you can’t have broadband without having an exchange line: that’s the way the regulator has decided it wanted to make sure that BT can make a living. If you’ve got broadband, if if you don’t want it, if you pick your phone up you’re going to get a dial tone that you can make a phone call from. Once you’ve got broadband unbundling, once you’ve got a connection from the exchange to the home it doesn’t cost you anything to connect a call whether its over broadband or you pick the normal phone up.

So suddenly a normal phone has the exact same economics as Skype, so I think what will happen, what you will see people like us do is offer VoIP-priced services on your normal phone at home without you having to put a headset in your PC or mess around and do all that kind of stuff. There are some people who will find reasons to do it and things that they want to do within it. The majority of people with a fixed-line are people with a family, over 30 years old, 50 per cent of it is there home alarm and ring people, 50 per cent of it is that they want to be able to ring the fire brigade if the house catches fire in the middle of the night. You won’t get them to use their mobile or use VoIP as they want to sit by their bed, get a dial tone and dial 999.

So I think in residential its not going to have a massive impact, in businesses its a different thing, with VoIP you can have multiple lines over one exchange line and that’s going to completely revolutionise business telephony.

Vonage is already more expensive than we are for your phone service and we’re not even using an unbundled broadband line on it. The economic difference is very different here than it is in the US.

Dunstone clearly didn’t have an idea about rise of wi-fi and devices using Skype as a client, though he clearly saw the business case of Skype for business. This made sense as by the late 1990s UK call centres were using VoIP complete with integration with customer records. Just under just over a year later 3 launched its dedicated Skype handset and Skype became available on the Symbian mobile operating system for download. There was resistance to OTT VoIP from T-Mobile in particular.

Now FaceTime, Skype, WeChat voice-and-video and Google Hangouts are ubiquitous. The voice call has been replaced by visual and text messaging on OTT services similar to the instant messaging clients of yore.

On where mobile phones are going…

I don’t have a clue where things will be in ten years. A few predictions on mobile phones, it is a unique device because the last 15 years have changed the world, more than it had changed for 500 years before that. 15 years ago, no one left their home without their money and their keys, now no one leaves home without their keys money and mobile phone and its taken a part in peoples lives that no other product has for hundreds and hundreds of years.

That relationship is so powerful that if a producer wants to gets content to you, they can guarantee it if they can get it to a mobile phone, so that’s why we see cameras, now everyone carries a camera and a mobile phone. Soon everyone will be an iPod and a camera and they’ll keep getting better and better. By next Christmas you’ll be able to buy cameras with flashes, zoom all this kind of stuff. I think that video is going on mobile phones, I think that payment is coming, payment systems is coming onto them and Carphone Warehouse is the largest retailer of digital cameras in the UK by accident. We didn’t mean to sell one of them, they just come in the products that we sell as standard and its just that everyone else’s business is morphing into ours because of the unique relationship the product has.

My final prediction on phones on the next year to two is that fashion is about to become a big thing in phones, at the moment they are driven by technology. We had an extraordinary experience this Christmas with a pink V3 we brought out. We’ve done some analysis that absolutely blew us a way, you’re starting to see the manufacturers talk to the big brands about putting things into phones and people spend stupid money on pens and watches and shoes and clothes. I think that all that madness is also going to end up in mobile phones as its such a public personal accessory.

Dunstone smartly limited his predictions to the next few years rather than looking forward a decade and his view of the camera as a key function driving purchase is still proved right. At the moment the intra-Android handset feature battle on premium handsets is fought on camera technology. Huawei and its Leica partnership, LG and Samsung with their respective double cameras and Sony with their powerful sensors.

The iPhone 7 is also sold in a similar way as Apple’s Shot on an iPhone marketing campaign shows.

Dunstone also saw the smartphone as a media device and for many years  content has been side loaded on to phones. Sony Ericsson had launched the Walkman-braned W800 the previous year. As SD card capacity increased, it wasn’t too much of a leap to assume that the mobile phone could replace lower end flash memory MP3 devices.

Nokia would be launching its multimedia focused N-series phones just a month after this talk. I remember seeing Christian Lindholm in the lift at Yahoo! with a Nokia N93. The phone looked like a chimera between a flip phone and camcorder.

Ten years later and video recording and editing technology is available across both Android and iOS handsets. One of the last projects I was involved in at Yahoo! was co-launching the N73 with Nokia which featured the Flickr photo app on the phone as standard. 11 years later and my iPhone still has flickr on it.

Dunstone believed that the phone would become a fashion item. At the time LG had partnered with Prada.  Vertu had been established seven years previously by Nokia. Today premium handsets have established themselves as as fashion items. TAG Heuer has experimented with its own smartphone, Porsche Design worked with BlackBerry.

On the flip side smartphones have become commoditised; Android manufacturers have seen their margins hollowed out. Huawei made a big push into the premium space with its P series phones yet sees declining handset prices as the medium tier handset segment eats into premium sector sales.

Dunstone’s predictions about mobile payments were too optimistic. There were various technology options explored by mobile carriers. Handset mobile payments did take-off in Japan. SMS based payments took off in East Africa. Smartphone hosted wallets have developed slowly however. Card payments are still pre-eminent in the western world at the moment.

On the competiton…

I’ve basically got two types of competition: people like Phones4U and The Link who are trying to do what we do and we just get up early and try and do it better and try and beat them up every day. And we have a team, we meet at 8 am every single morning and look at everybody else’s prices and reprice based on what happened that day its that brutal. We fight, fight, fight.

My other competition is the network stores which is a combination of wanting to have some direct impact with customers and a certain amount of vanity about wanting their brand on the hight street. They don’t compete with us in terms of the volumes of sales that they do, as the market gets more fragmented I think that its less likely that the customer is going to say I just want to go and see the world according to Orange today, rather than even going to one of my normal competitors. In reality it will be let me go and compare Orange with everybody. I think that its going to change but there’s not a very strong economic rationale for them in the first place.

Dunstone didn’t seem to realise how precarious the independent mobile phone shop was as a business. Network shops are now showrooms and service centres for when things go wrong as consumers go to the web. Carphone Warehouse adapted by becoming a triple play carrier in its own right as well as selling other networks mobile plans. Dunstone’s peer John Caudwell had the good sense / luck to sell Phones4U on to private equity providers just six months after this interview.

The mobile carriers didn’t have it a lot easier; O2 was spun out of BT in 2002 and bought by Telefonica of Spain just prior to this interview. T-Mobile and Orange merged their UK operations to form EE. EE was then acquired by BT, some 12 years after BT had spun out O2. 3UK has made an unsuccessful bid for O2, the UK competition authority shut the bid down.

On the transition of phones to computers…

Absolutely they’re changing into computers, they start to have bugs, they start to have all kinds of usability issues. Our job is very simple and I think the worst thing that could have happened for me is that there could have been one mobile phone network and one really simple phone and the people understand it so that they did not need anyone to help them set it up and work out which one to buy. So we absolutely love complex markets as this gives us something to offer and something to do we have to keep changing. I just watch in delight as Microsoft come into the marketplace because that’s not going to work is it? Its going to have lots of bugs and crash and do all these sorts of things that needs tons of support. Lots of competing systems Symbian and others, so its another level of complexity alongside all the complexity of the operators, all the complexity of the tarrifs – Bring it on.

Dunstone realised that smartphones would bring complexity to the mobile phone industry. He seemed to think it would be closer to the PC industry in terms of complexity. He saw what I suspect was a different opportunity in that – particularly building client relationships. In retrospect, he underestimated this disruption.

More information
Dunstone on…. | renaissance chambara
Nokia debuts N series trio | The Register

Jargon watch: 996

As with many things in China, numbers become important. Chinese start-up culture has a reputation for flogging the guts out of people to a degree that would even make Sports Direct blush.

996 is a summary of many Chinese tech companies core working house 9am – 9pm, six days a week. Apparently it’s already implemented at companies like Xiaomi and there are claims about its spectacular benefits in terms of productivity.

9/9/6 – Does The New Chinese Startup Work Practice Help Or Hurt Productivity? – TechNode

Have we reached peak streetwear?

At the end of January I wrote a blog post about the landmark collection by Louis Vuitton and Supreme.

I delved into the history of streetwear and the deep connection it shared with luxury brands. This linkage came from counterfeit products, brand and design language appropriation.

This all came from a place of individuality and self expression of the wearer.

obey

I reposted it from my blog on to LinkedIn. I got a comment from a friend of mine which percolated some of the ideas I’d been thinking about. The comment crystalised some of my fears as a long-time streetwear aficionado.

This is from Andy Jephson who works as a director for consumer brand agency Exposure:

The roots of street and lux that you point to seem to be all about individuality and self expression and for me this is what many modern collabs are missing. To me they seem to be about ostentatious showmanship. I love a collaboration that sees partners sharing their expertise and craft to create something original. The current obsession with creating hype however is creating a badging culture that produces products that could have been made in one of the knock-off factories that you mention. Some collabs that just produce new colourways and hybrid styles can be amazing, reflecting the interests of their audience. But far too many seem gratuitous and are completely unobtainable for the brand fans on one side of the collaborative partnership.

The streetwear business is mad money

From Stüssy in 1980, streetwear has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry. Streetwear sales are worth more than 75 billion dollars per year.

By comparison the UK government spent about 44.1 billion on defence in 2016. Streetwear sales are more than three times the estimated market value of Snap Inc. Snap Inc., is the owner of Snapchat.

Rise of Streetwear

It is still about one third the size of the luxury industry. Streetwear accounts for the majority of menswear stocked in luxury department stores. Harvey Nichols claimed that 63% of the their contemporary menswear was streetwear. Many luxury brands off-the-peg men’s items blur the boundary between luxe and streetwear.

The industry has spawned some technology start-ups acting as niche secondary markets including:

  • Kixify
  • K’LEKT
  • THRONE
  • StockX
  • SneakerDon
  • GOAT

Large parts of the streetwear industry has become lazy and mercenary. You can see this in:

  • The attention to detail and quality of product isn’t what it used to be. I have vintage Stüssy pieces that are very well-made. I can’t say the same of many newer streetwear brands
  • Colour-ways just for the sake of it. I think Nike’s Jordan brand is a key offender. Because it has continually expands numbers of derivative designs and combinations. New Balance* have lost much of their mojo. Especially when you look at the product their Super Team 33 in Maine came up with over the years. The fish, fanzine or the element packs were both strong creative offerings. By comparison recent collections felt weak
  • The trivial nature of some of the collaborations. This week Supreme sold branded Metro Cards for the New York subway
  • Streetwear brands that sold out to fast moving consumer products. This diluted their own brand values. While working in Hong Kong, I did a Neighborhood Coke Zero collaboration. The idea which had some tie-in to local cycling culture and nightscape. Aape – the second-brand of BAPE did a deal wrapping Pepsi cans in the iconic camouflage

Hong Kong brand Chocoolate did three questionable collaborations over the past 18 months:

  • Vitaminwater
  • Nissin (instant noodles)
  • Dreyer’s (ice cream)

By comparison, Stüssy has a reputation in the industry for careful business management. The idea was to never become too big, too fast. The Sinatra family kept up quality and selective distribution seeing off Mossimo, FUBU and Triple Five Soul. Yes, they’ve done collaborations, but they were canny compared to newer brands:

“The business has grown in a crazy way the past couple of years,” says Sinatra. “We reluctantly did over $50 million last year.”

Reluctant because, according to Sinatra, the company is currently trying to cut back and stay small. “It was probably one of our biggest years ever — and it was an accident.”

Sinatra characterises Stüssy’s third act as having a “brand-first, revenue second” philosophy, in order to avoid becoming “this big monstrosity that doesn’t stand for anything.”

The Evolution of Streetwear. The newfound reality of Streetwear and its luxury-like management academic study uncovered careful brand custodianship.

It’s not clothing; it’s an asset class

Part of the bubble feel within the streetwear industry is due to customer behaviour. For many people, street wear is no longer a wardrobe staple. Instead it becomes an alternative investment instrument. Supreme items and tier zero Nike releases are resold for profit like a day trader on the stock market.

Many of the start-ups supported by the community play to this ‘day trader’ archetype. It is only a matter of time for the likes of Bonham’s and Sotherby’s get in on the act.

A key problem with the market is that trainers aren’t like a Swiss watch or a classic car. They become unusable in less than a decade as the soles degrade and adhesive breaks down.

There is the apocryphal story of a Wall Street stock broker getting out before the great stock market crash. The indicator to pull his money out was a taxi driver or a shoe shine boy giving stock tips.

Streetwear is at a similar stage with school-age teenagers dealing must-have items as a business. What would a reset look like in the streetwear industry? What would be the knock-on effect for the luxury sector?

More information
USA Streetwear Market Research Report 2015 | WeConnectFashion
Louis Vuitton, Supreme and the tangled relationship between streetwear and luxury brands | renaissance chambara
New Balance Super Team 33 – Elements Collection | High Snobriety
New Balance ST33 – The Fanzine Collection | High Snobriety
1400 Super Team 33 (ST33) trio | New Balance blog – the infamous fish pack
How Stüssy Became a $50 Million Global Streetwear Brand Without Selling Out | BoF (Business of Fashion)
The Evolution of Streetwear. The newfound reality of Streetwear and its luxury-like management by de Macedo & Machado, Universidade Católica Portuguesa (2015) – PDF

* in the interest of full disclosure, New Balance is a former client.

Watson’s peer isn’t an AI, it’s just like Tony the Tiger

e
IBM have done some iconic advertising since the late 1990s. Sun became the dot behind dot com; but was out-marketed by IBM’s ownership of e-business.
e hip
For some early clients like Boxman – there were accusations that IBM was learning about the internet whilst it did the work. And for many many of the products it was little more than putting HTML lipstick on a mature technology pig.

In 2008, that seems to have changed to smarter planet as IBM looked to get involved in infrastructure from building management to traffic control.

In 2011, IBM’s Research division saw the culmination of a seven year project that had one of their supercomputers perform on TV game show Jeopardy!  Marketing really started to change in 2014 in a dramatically different direction. IBM started describing a mix of machine learning and big data analysis technologies as Watson – they have their own Watson business unit. The implication being that the company had a corporate mascot. Think Tony the Tiger meets The Terminator.
What I Got When I Mailed Tony The Tiger An Autograph Request
The Watson you might have been sold may use similar technology principles but there isn’t a single sentient AI doing your tax returns in one milli-second and pharmaceutical research the next. Yet having talked to friends who work in a number of sectors and that’s precisely how they perceived Watson.

 

PR in Trump’s America

Interesting hour long video discussion on public relations in the US in the midst of media change with the Trump administration. It has a really interesting polling post mortem on Hillary’s loss.

Louis Vuitton, Supreme and the tangled relationship between streetwear and luxury brands

The recent collaboration between New York’s Supreme and Louis Vuitton seems like a natural fit.  The reality is that luxury and streetwear have been dancing around each other for a good while.

Snide started it all

Snide was slang in the 1980s for fake or counterfeit. Hip Hop and the Caribbean-influenced Buffalo movement in the UK each used counterfeit and real luxury in their own way.

Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan was a was a Harlem-based craftsman and business man who dressed a lot of New York based artists from the golden age of hip hop. Dan’s first hip hop client was LL Cool J back in 1985. Dan’s style was luxe, the finest silks and furs were standard issue – think Puff Daddy before Puff Daddy. They went for customised outfits with their branding on which Dan provided. As the scene took off Dan incorporated suit lining material (which replicated the likes of the Fendi, Bally  or MCM brands) and Gucci or Louis Vuitton branded vinyl to make one-off products.

He customised trainers, clothing and even car interiors. Dan’s own Jeep Wrangler had an interior retrimmed in MCM branded vinyl.

Much of the luxury branding Dan used was coming in from Korean factories which at that time supplied the fake trade. Now similar products would have come out of China. I took a trip to the South China City complex in 2010 where fabric suppliers would offer Louis Vuitton labels and Supreme tags side-by-side.  I can only imagine that the Korean suppliers of the 1980s  had similar markets in textile industry centres like Deagu. Outside of hip hop, Dan was the go-to tailor for all the hustlers in Harlem – so you can see how he could have got the hook-up into the counterfeit suppliers.

At the time hip hop culture was not in a relationship with brands who where concerned about how it might affect them. LL Cool J was the first artist to get a deal with Le Coq Sportif. Run DMC got a long term deal with Adidas after their single ‘My Adidas’ became successful. But these were the exceptions to the rule.  So with Dan’s help they co-opted the brands to try and demonstrate success.

Over in the UK, the Buffalo collective of stylists, artists and photographers including Ray Petri, Jamie Morgan, Barry Kamen (who modelled for Petri), Mark Lebon and Cameron McVey. Buffalo was known as an attitude, which threw contrasting styles together and filtered into fashion shoots and influenced the collections of major designers including Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Even if you didn’t know what Buffalo was, you would have recognised the aesthetic from the likes of i-D, Blitz, New Musical Express and Arena. 

Buffalo mixed Armani jackets with Doctor Martens work boots, or a Puma bobble hat. Petri used music to sound track his process and this was pretty similar to the kind of stuff that influenced street wear pioneer Shawn Stussy over in California. Motown and hip-hop to dub reggae was the sound which explains the Feeling Irie t-shirts created by the white surfboard maker.

If you thought Bros looked cool in their MA-1 bomber jackets and stone washed Levi’s 501 jeans – there was a direct stylistic line back to Buffalo – rehabilitating the items from their link to skinhead culture.

Buffalo permeated into the street style of the decade; influencing the likes of Soul II Soul. Meanwhile over in Bristol The Wild Bunch were yet to morph into Massive Attack. Two members headed to London; producer Nelle Hooper and Miles Johnson (aka DJ Milo who went on to work in New York and Japan). A shoot was organised by i-D magazine and they turned up wearing their street clothes alongside DJ Dave Dorrell and model / stylist Barnsley. At the time, it was considered to be ‘very Buffalo’ in feel, but Dave Dorrell admitted in an interview that they had just came as they were. Dorrell wore his t-shirt as ‘advertising’ for it.

buffalo

The Hermes t-shirt and belt were snide, the Chanel Number 5 t-shirt sported by Dave Dorrell were being knocked out by a group of friends. Young people in London co-opted brands just like the hip-hop artists heading to Dapper Dan’s in Harlem.

Homage

From 1980, surfer Shawn Stussy had been growing an clothing empire of what we would now recognise as streetwear. Stussy had originally came up with the t-shirts as an adjunct and advertisement of his main business – selling surfboards. But the clothing hit emerging culture: skating, punk, hip-hop and took on a life of its own. It went global through Stussy’s ‘tribe’ of friends that he made along the way.

Stussy is known for his eclectic influences and mixing media: old photographs alongside his own typography. In a way that was unheard of in brand circles at the time, Stussy manifested his brands in lots of different ways. The back to back SS logo inside a circle was a straight rip from Chanel; the repeating logo motif that appeared in other designs was a nod to MCM and Louis Vuitton.

All of this went into the cultural melting pot of world cities like Tokyo, New York, London and Los Angeles. Stussy went on to do collaborations from a specially designed party t-shirt for i-D magazine’s birthday party to the cover art of Malcolm Maclaren records. Collaboration with mundane and high-end brands is backed into streetwear’s DNA.

Coke Zero x Neighborhood limited edition cans

(Neighborhood x Coke Zero was something I was involved with during my time in Hong Kong.)

Japan with its engrained sense of quality and wabisabi took the Buffalo mix-and-match approach to the next level. Japan’s own streetwear labels like Visivim, Neighborhood, W-Taps, The Real McCoy and A Bathing Ape (BAPE) took streetwear product quality, exclusivity and price points into luxury brand territory. That didn’t stop BAPE from making a snide versions of various Rolex models under the ‘Bapex’ brand.

Bapex

Some two decades later Supreme came up in New York. The brand takes design appropriation and homage to a new level. Every piece Supreme seems to do is a reference to something else. The famous box logo rips from Barbara Kruger’s piece ‘I shop therefore I am’. From taking a snide swipe at consumerism to ending up in the belly of the beast took Supreme a relatively short time. This heritage of appropriation didn’t stop Supreme from using legal means against people it felt had appropriated its ‘look’.

In an ironic twist of fate, Supreme was sued by Louis Vuitton in 2000 and yet the 2017 collaboration looks exceptionally similar to the offending items…

The last time I shared this story the page was just at 2k followers. With the collaboration officially announced today- and the page having 40k more followers since then- I figure it’s time to re-share. The year was 2000, and a 6 year old Supreme took their hands at referencing a high fashion brand as they did early on (Burberry, Gucci,) this time with Louis Vuitton. Box Logo tees (and stickers), beanies, 5 panels, bucket hats, and skateboard decks all featured the Supreme Monogram logo (pictured right). Within two weeks, Vuitton sends in a cease and desist and apparently, ordered Supreme to burn the remaining available stock. Clearly, many of the products from 2000 are still in the resell market, circulating today. Now we arrive at today’s FW Louis Vuitton fashion show. As most everyone is aware by now, Supreme is in fact collaborating with the luxury brand for a July- into fall collection. I’ve seen quite a few pieces from the collaboration (20+, check @supreme__hustle @supreme_access and @supreme_leaks_news for more pics) and it’s panning out to be Supremes largest collaboration to date. It’s interesting to see the references of both brands within the collaboration- from old Dapper Dan bootleg Louis pieces, to authentic ones, to Supremes monogram box logo and skateboard desks (pictured left). 17 years later and @mrkimjones proves that time can mend all wounds (amongst other things). Excited to see what all will release alongside this legendary collaboration. #supremeforsale #supreme4sale

A photo posted by Supreme (@supreme_copies) on

The new customers

North East Asia’s fast growing economies had been borne out of learning from developed market expertise, state directed focus on exports and ruthless weeding out of weaker businesses. Intellectual property was cast aside at various points. Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and China went from making knock-off products to displacing Europe and the US as the leading luxury markets.

Asian luxury consumers, particularly those second generation rich in China were younger than the typical customer luxury brands cater too. These consumers bought product as they travelled taking in style influences as they went. First from nearby markets like Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore and then Korea. This drew from a melange of hip hop, streetwear, Buffalo styling and contemporary western designers like Vivienne Westwood – as well as the more matronly styles of the traditional European luxury houses.

The luxury brands had to adapt. They brought in new designers who themselves were drawing from similar influences.  These designers also collaborated with sportswear brands like Alexander McQueen and Puma or Jeremy Scott and Raf Simons for Adidas.

Luxury brands got seriously into new product categories making luxe versions of training shoes that could be charitably called a homage to the like of Nike’s Air Force 1.

Bringing things full circle

As the supreme_copies Instagram account notes the collaboration with Supreme and Louis Vuitton brings things full circle with the pieces having a nod to Dapper Dan’s custom work as well as Supreme’s own ‘homage’.  Luxury brand MCM (Michael Cromer München), which Dan borrowed from extensively in the 1980s was restructured in 1997 with shops and brand being sold separately. The brand was eventually acquired eight years later by the Korean Sungjoo Group. Korea now has its own fast developing luxury fashion and cosmetics brand industry. Textile city Deagu which was the likely source of Dapper Dan’s fabric is now a fashion and luxury business hub in its own right. The Korean entertainment industry is a trend setter throughout Asia. For instance, Hallyu drama My Love From A Star drove breakout sales for the Jimmy Choo ‘Abel’ shoe.

The only question I still have is why did a move like Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Supreme take so long? The luxury brands spend a lot on customer insight, they were using social listening far longer than they had been on social media. They know that a customer wearing their jacket could have a Visivim backpack slung over the shoulder and a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths on their feet. Customers mix-and-match Buffalo style for all but the most formal occasions. For streetwear brands, collaboration is in their DNA and they get an additional leg-up in the quality stakes.

More information
Ray Petri
How Buffalo shaped the landscape of 80s fashion – Dazed
Dave Dorrell interview part one | Test Pressing
Dapper Dan
Barbara Kruger Responds to Supreme’s Lawsuit: ‘A Ridiculous Clusterf**k of Totally Uncool Jokers’ | Complex
Volume and wealth make Chinese millennials a lucrative target market: GfK | Luxury Daily
Just why are Louis Vuitton and other high-end retailers abandoning China? | South China Morning Post – although Chinese shoppers consumed 46 per cent of luxury goods around the world, their purchases in their home market accounted for only 10 per cent of global sales, falling from 11 per cent in 2012 and 13 per cent in 2013
How a Jimmy Choo Shoe Became a Global Best Seller – WSJ

Throwback gadget: shareware

Back before the internet became ubiquitous, software was distributed by bulletin boards. It was expensive to dial into a board, so magazines uses to have storage media pre-loaded with applications on the front of them.

For much of the late 1990s and early 2000s my parents used to use MacFormat magazine CDs and floppy disks as coffee coasters. One disk may come with bloatware such as the installation software for AOL, Demon or Claranet. The other disk would be full of free or paid for software.

The paid for software was often written by a single developer. It was a labour of love / cottage industry hybrid. Often the developers wrote the software to deal with a real need that they had, it was then passed on as they thought others would benefit as well.

Open source software the way we understand it now was only in its infancy in terms of public awareness. Packaged software was big money. As recent as 2000, Microsoft Office for the Mac would have cost you £235. Quark Xpress – the Adobe Indesign of its day would have cost in the region of £700+ VAT.

Into the gap sprung two types of software: freeware and shareware.

Freeware was usually provided as is, there was little expectation of application support. It would become orphaned when the developer moved on to other things

ChocoFlop Shareware Style

 

Shareware usually had different mechanisms to allow you to try it, if you could see the benefit then you paid a fee. This unlocked new features, or got rid of nag screens (like the one from image editing app Chocoflop).

In return you also got support if there was any problems with the app. Shareware hasn’t died out, but has become less visible in the world of app stores. One that I have been using on and off for over 20 years is GraphicConvertor by Lemke Software. It handles any kind of arcane graphic file you can throw at it and converts it into something useable.

Kagi Software were one of the first people to provide programmers with a way of handling payments and software activation. Kagi provided an onscreen form to fill out, print, and mail along with their payment. it was pre-internet e-commerce.

I can’t remember exactly what utility programme I first bought for my college PowerBook, but I do remember that I sent the printed form and cheque to a developer in Glasgow. I got a letter back with an activation code and a postcard (I’ve now lost) from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Later on, Kagi were one of the first online payment processors.

From the late 1990s FTP sites and the likes of download.com began to replace the magazine disk mount covers. Last year Kagi died, making life a little more difficult for the worldwide cottage industry of small software developers. it was inconvenient, but now with PayPal developers have an easy way to process payments and there are various key management options.

It’s time that we talk about micro-influencers

Much of the social marketing today for consumer brand is done through what is called influencer marketing. For a number of these influencers who have a large social following, working with brand has become very lucrative. But one of the hottest tickets at the moment within communications agencies are ‘micro-influencers’; Edelman Digital lists it as a key area in Digital Trends Report . There is widely cited research by Marketly that claims there is an engagement ceiling (at least on Instagram). Once a follower count gets beyond that, engagement rates decline. This micro-influencer sweet spot is apparently 1,000 – 100,000 followers.

What are micro-influencers?

Brown & Fiorella (2013) described micro influencers

Adequately identifying prospective customers, and further segmenting them based on situations and situational factors enables us to identify the people and businesses – or technologies an channels that are closest to them in each scenario. We call these micro-influencers and see them as the business’s opportunity to exert true influence over the customer’s decision-making process as opposed to macro-influencers who simply broadcast to a wider, more general audience.

Brown & Fiorella wanted to focus on formal prospect detail capture and conversion. It sounds like an adjunct to integrating marketing automation from the likes of Hubspot and Marketo into a public relations campaign.

This approach is more likely to work in certain circumstances:

  • Low barrier to conversion (e-tailing)
  • Business-to-business marketing – for instance Quocirca did some interesting research back in 2006 that showed endorsements by a finance directors peers at other companies was likely to have a positive effect on a prospective supplier

Brown & Fiorella’s thinking tends to fall down, when you deploy their approach to:

  • Consumer marketing
  • Mature product sectors
  • Mature brands

Brand preference and purchase is much more dependent on reach and repetition to build familiarity and being ‘top-of-mind’ as a product.

Most money in influence marketing is spent in the consumer space as B2B marketing tends to struggle with:

  • Reach
  • Volume of conversation interaction

(At least outside of the US).

Brown and Fiorella are 180 degrees away from the approach of consumer marketing maven Byron Sharp and his ‘smart’ mass marketing approach. This means that PR and social agencies are often out-of-step with the thinking of marketing clients, their media planners and other agency partners.

Engagement matters less than reach or repetition of brand message for mature sectors or brands. For many consumer brands the drop off in engagement amongst macro-influencers is a non-issue, a red herring.

The only part of the engagement measure that I would be concerned about in that case would be content propagation amongst my defined target audience – how widely had it been repeatedly shared as this would affect total reach.

If the client and planner are using Sharp’s thinking then this audience would be wide, but a certain amount of the propagation would be wasted – for instance outside targeted geographies.

From the perspective of communications agencies I can understand the obsession with engagement being part of their DNA. These businesses are in the offline world are engagement agencies; whether its politicians, regulators, fashion stylists, movie set designers, editors, journalists, TV producers or DJs.

Why are micro-influencers a hot topic now?

The most obvious reason is that more popular ‘macro-influencers’ are well informed about their commercial value which has been driven up to a point where they look expensive in terms of cost, even if you charitably look at it on a ‘per follower’ basis.

On the supply side of the equation influencer representation benefit from having more ‘inventory’ that can be sold at various price points to marketers.

Challenges in influencer marketing

From a marketing perspective there are a number of issues in influencer marketing – these factors are either unknown data points or represent an issue with the brand experience

  • Quality of brand placement
  • Cost per reach
  • Consistency of reach (how confident is the media planner that the influencer will achieve a certain level of reach)
  • Message repetition amongst the audience that I want to reach

Which makes it harder to factor into an econometric model that would help justify the investment in influencer marketing as a contribution to sales.

Let’s have a look at data around a campaign for a smartphone manufacturer that has been touted as successful by the agency involved. We don’t know the cost as its likely to be client confidential.

  • 2 million YouTube views (we don’t know how many of these were driven by advertising)

  • 75,000 likes

  • 13,587,159 impressions driven by 6 influencers

  • 10,689 clicks from 90 posts

  • 10 million impressions for the promotion of a colour variant of the smartphone model and 92,320 engaged

  • 4.6% engagement rate (which we’re assured is 41% higher than the industry average for branded content)

What this doesn’t tell us:

  • Reach amongst target audience
  • Repetition amongst target audience

Which could then be used to provide an estimate of its contributory factor to sales if you had an econometrics model. You can’t access how it works next to other tactics and there are limited outtakes for the learning marketing organisation.

Quality of brand placement

Many brands have struggled to get their brand in the influencers content in a way that:

  • Represents it in a meaningful way (for example beyond unboxing videos, one smartphone looks rather like another)
  • Doesn’t feel ad-hoc or awkward

Some luxury brands have managed to get around this by keeping control of the content; a good example of this is De Grisogono – a family-run high jewellery and luxury watch brand. They work with fashion bloggers that meet their high standards and invite them to events. (It’s obviously an oversight on their part that I haven’t had an invite yet.)

De Grisogono provides them with high-quality photography of its pieces and the event. They get the best of both worlds: influencer marketing but with a high standard of brand presentation which raises the quality of the achieved reach.

There is a school of thought that micro-influencers will be easier to manage in order to assure quality of brand placement. However, micro-influencers are likely to be aspiring macro-influencers and each will have a clear line of demarcation in their own head that they won’t cross. The reality is one of complexity dependent on:

  • Brand power
  • Relationships
  • Credibility of proposed idea
  • Impact on aspirations – could they get more followers by taking a stand and strategically burning a brand?

Cost per reach

Influencers tend to talk about themselves in terms of the number of followers that they have. However many followers seldom engage with the influencers content. This happens for a number of reasons:

  • The follow button is often used as a book mark or a like button
  • Algorithmic changes to social platforms and the volume of the social firehouse itself drown out brands (and these influencers are all about the brand of ‘me’). Whatley and Manson’s research at Ogilvy on the decline of organic reach in Facebook pages  is worthwhile having a look at

Followers as a data point is not the straight analogue of reach that the industry and influencers would have you believe based on how they present their data.

Reach numbers that are presented are often not that much more useful:

follower

(Data via Golin, TapInfluence and Marriott)

Consistency of reach

So influencers may give us follower numbers or ‘total reach’ calculations but how do we know what reach their brand placement content is likely to achieve? At the moment, I don’t know how consistent influencers are, I have a ‘personal time’ data project currently in progress on it. More on that hopefully in a later post. There isn’t off-the-peg data that I know of, so I am pulling together a data set.

Message repetition

Until we understand the ‘quality of brand placement’ we wouldn’t be able to understand whether a piece of influencer content was a point of content delivery. We’d also need to know do audiences of influencer A also look at media channels or other influencers that we have in our overall media plan. There often isn’t an overall media plan and there often isn’t sufficient quality of audience data for influencers.

More information
Edelman Digital Trends Report – (PDF) makes some interesting reading
Instagram Marketing: Does Influencer Size Matter? | Markerly Blog
Influence Marketing: How to Create, Manage and Measure Brand Influencers in Social Media Marketing by Danny Brown & Sam Fiorella ISBN-13: 978-0789751041 (2013)
Facebook Zero: Considering Life After the Demise of Organic Reach

Jargon watch: lights out production lines

If you are of a certain age, ‘hand made by robots’ brings to mind the Fiat Strada / Ritmo a thirtysomething year old hatchback design that was built in a factory with a high degree of automation for the time.

Fiat subsidiary Comau created Robogate, a highly automated system that speeds up body assembly. Robogate was eventually replaced in 2000. The reality is that ‘hand made by robots’ had a liberal amount of creative licence. Also it didn’t enable Fiat to shake off its rust bucket image. Beneath the skin, the car was essentially a Fiat 127. Car factories still aren’t fully automated.

Foxconn is looking to automate its own production lines and create products that truly are ‘hand-built by robots’. Like Fiat it has its own robots firm which is manufacturing 10,000 robots per year.

Foxconn has so far focused on production lines for larger product final assembly (like televisions) and workflow on automated machine lines: many consumer products use CNC (computer numeric control) machines. That’s how Apple iPhone and Macs chassis’ are made. These totally automated lines are called ‘lights out production lines’ by Foxconn.

Foxconn is looking to automate production because China is undergoing a labour shortfall as the population getting older. Foxconn uses a lot of manual workers for final assembly of devices Apple’s iPhone because the components are tightly packed together. It will be a while before Foxconn manages to automate this as robotic motor control isn’t fine enough to achieve this yet.

More information
Foxconn boosting automated production in China | DigiTimes – (paywall)

Belated Christmas Gift: updated set of marketing data slides

I started pulling together and publishing different data sets focused on online marketing from social platforms to the size of mobile screens. I think that it might be useful for strategists and planners. Feel free to use. If you do find them useful drop me a note. You can scroll through the embedded version below and download the PowerPoint version here.

Opportunities for PR and brand communications from 2017 onwards

2016 has been a watershed year in the western world. Political forces that were simmering, but previously untapped manifested themselves in populist victories. Political norms that were common currency for the past two decades have been brought into question and there will be societal impacts and changes in consumer tastes.

Businesses are being buffeted by these changes. In the case of the UK; supply chains will be re-engineered over the next two years to address the country’s departure from the European economic bloc. Most companies that I have spoken to are working on the assumption of the hardest Brexit:

  • No trade agreement with the EU
  • No customs union with the EU
  • No passporting for services such as banking
  • No agreement on storage of EU or US personal data in the UK
  • No free movement of EU talent
  • Problems with the WTO as countries look to settle scores like ownership of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar

This presents communications teams with opportunities and challenges:

  • There will be new regulatory and legal environments for companies to navigate
  • Corporate and social responsibility programmes will need to be recalibrated
  • There will be change management as jobs are moved abroad and facilities closed
  • Brands will have to work smarter with less
  • Consumer data based systems will need to be redesigned to meet the new legal and country boundaries imposed upon it
  • UK businesses will need to prepare for permanent handicap on their profits

There is also a wave of change for consumer businesses. Whole categories of products – carbonated drinks, cereals and spreads are losing market share to substitute products. This is hitting the large FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) brands including:

  • Unilever
  • Coca-Cola
  • General Mills
  • Nestle
  • Kelloggs

Consumer brands have looked to counteract this in a number of ways:

  • Putting their spend where it will do the best work by using zero-based budgeting (ZBB)
  • Restructuring brand architectures – moving away from preventing brand damage through brand extension to brand consolidation to maximise the benefit of marketing spend. Coca-Cola is a prime example of this
  • Brand architecture will create a tension in the organisation. On the one hand the societal norm will be for local brands rather than global, on the other you have the corporate desire to cut and simplify to maintain margins. Whilst some companies may kill brands, others may sell them on to local companies, which will then try to squeeze as much value out of the brand equity as they can
  • Move away from micro-targeting to ‘smart’ mass-marketing – the key exponent of this is Byron Sharp at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute at the University of South Australia

Opportunities in terms of new products that communications agencies can offer

  • Internal communications programme – site shutdown or company shutdown as a product
  • CSR audit as product
  • CRM (customer relationship management) audit as product

Focus on clients based on their strategic intent if they are implementing ZBB, here’s a quick guide I did earlier this year.

Businesses have six paths to growth
Zero-Based Budgeting

Path versus agency discipline
Zero-Based Budgeting

If your client programme lies in parts of the spectrum where you won’t benefit, then as an agency you have a few choices:

  • Identify and grow your business within other brands of a clients business
  • Look at rivals for opportunities
  • Treat the current business as a cash cow

A second aspect of risk analysis is brand consolidation. There is not much that an agency can do with the change in brand architecture like Coca-Cola. The clients are likely to cut costs.

A clearer source of risk will be ‘local gems’ this is a consumer brand that is only sold in one country (it may be known under a different name in other countries). These brands are likely to be closed down or sold on, particularly if they are in declining growth sectors such as margarine spreads, cereals or carbonated drinks.

If you have only started planning about looking for replacement brands in your portfolio, it may already be too late. Best case scenario is that the brand is bought by a local FMCG company.

Looking at previous brand sales like Radion washing powder as an example the acquirers will not support it with significant marketing spend. Instead, they will look to maximise their investment by mining existing brand loyalty and awareness.  Depending on the product category and the target audience will depend on how fast inevitable brand decline will be.

Either way it is not a particularly attractive piece of business or large or medium-sized agencies. An incumbent agency will have to repitch for the work as it will fall outside the purview of existing contracts and business relationships.

Advertising agencies have a head start in terms of their planners having a clear grip on what Sharp’s concept of smart mass marketing means for their discipline. PR agencies need to articulate this and reflect it in their account planning. They are still struggling to get to grips with social and are championing concepts like ‘micro-influencers’; that don’t fit into Sharp’s world view. They are effectively burning client respect.

PR agencies need to think much more in terms of programme audience reach and repetition for audiences, rather than the current focus on influence.

Why Amazon wins?

Much has been written about how Amazon has:

  • Amazing data and uses it as a way to try and better understand intent
  • It has access to large amounts of capital so it can scale internationally and defeat local e-tailing champions
  • Amazing logistics foot print to satisfy consumer needs quickly

But one of the biggest factors in Amazon’s success is the quality of competition that it often faces.

Let me give you an example that happened to me this week. I have kept the vendor’s name anonymous because they are no worse than many other e-tailers – and they make damn fine iPhone cases.

I got an iPhone 7 Plus when the phone first came out and ordered a protective case from my usual preferred case manufacturer. I ordered direct because Amazon hadn’t got it in stock at the time. The supplier sent me two cases instead of one – probably an order fulfilment error.

I then get an email from this week:

Keep your Pixel and Pixel XL protected and pristine. XXXX Certified XXXX Protection

Protect your Google Pixel and Google Pixel XL with XXXX Certified XXXX Protection.

Commute with Confidence with our Commuter Series or choose Rugged Daily Defence with our Defender Series.

Shop Google Pixel Shop Google Pixel XL

Let’s think about this for a moment. They have me buying a cover for an iPhone 7 Plus. The average consumer replaces their phone probably on a two to three year cycle

Citigroup estimates the phone-replacement cycle will stretch to 29 months for the first half of 2016, up from 28 months in the fourth quarter of 2015 and the typical range of 24 to 26 months seen during the two prior years.

(Wall Street Journal – Americans Keep Their Cellphones Longer)

They have a number of pieces of information about me:

  • Date of purchase
  • Model of phone that I purchased a case for
  • Colour combination that I selected
  • Gender (based on my title)
  • Address
  • Email

They will also know information about the phone model itself since they make an Apple certified product:

  • Dimensions
  • Date of release

They also know based on previous Apple launches that this handset is likely to be in the product line for two years, one year as the flag ship product and the next as a cheaper line.

So why did they decide to send me the Google Pixel email?

I can think of three likely hypothesises:

  1. The company’s email marketers don’t have access to information that could be used for targeting – good for privacy, not so good for successful email marketing campaigns
  2. The email marketers had the data but didn’t bother to use it – poor work
  3. The email marketers viewed the Pixel as a much buy device and considered me a likely purchaser – their opinion would be at odds with reviews of the Pixel

Using Occam’s razor the answer is likely to be one or two. It’s not that hard for Amazon to win with competition like this.