Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Relevance or irrelevance?

Making and selling things that matter

A collection of vignettes about companies that strive to connect

Relevance: Making Stuff that Matters. Portfolio. 272 pages.

Author Tim Manners’ Cool News of the Day is an interesting website. A marketing director with whom I worked turned me on to it a few years back, and I received its daily e-mails for a while, then unsubscribed. Why?

Well, the site’s real name — reveries.com — makes one promise and “Cool News of the Day” suggests something else. But thinking about why I’d begun letting the missives remain unread in my in-box, I realized that neither was true. There wasn’t much newsy about them. In fact, there was little, if anything, time-sensitive therein. Mostly, there seemed to be a sameness in tone and content, so if I’d unsubscribed, I wouldn’t be missing much.

The subject matter throughout was marketing with a relentlessly consumerist approach, not “reveries” or meditations in any sense. Or maybe they were and I was far too obtuse to notice. That’s a distinct possibility, though in all fairness (to myself), the nature of e-mail and the Web requires almost instant appeal — which wasn’t there for me. Now, a few years hence, I favor RSS feeds over e-mail, so I subscribed and will give it another shot.

This book, however, represents an opportunity for Manners to stretch out a bit, to really deliver some actual reveries. But that’s not what he wanted to do, apparently, as the content mirrors the e-mails. There are short corporate profiles in four categories: Insight, Innovation, Design and Value. Just about every story begins more or less the same way; with a brief statement of the problem, then the remedy is elucidated by a corporate exec. The consistent thread, of course, is the eponymous “relevance,” with different meaning to the purveyors and users of each product or service. And sometimes, the same thing means something else.

Manners writes about one airline who upset its female customers by building a website to specifically cater to them, while another airline gained favor by doing something similar. He also discusses companies who claim to ignore demographics and segment their market in other ways, and firms that disregard conventional wisdom and do what they think is best, valuing the intuitive over the empirical. But don’t most successful ventures define rather than follow best practices?

A few of Manners’ own insights are sprinkled throughout the book, as well. When writing about the artist once again known as Prince and his scheme to distribute CDs at concerts, which the music industry ultimately refused to count in its sales charts, the author tartly (and smartly) opines: “This seems to be a pattern in the record business: If it outwits the rules, outlaw it.”

If there’s any thread that runs through the book, it’s that delivering value to customers is key, whether it’s in terms of cost, utility, design, convenience or in other less tangible and more ephemeral ways. In fact, the book’s final two chapters — a “coda” and a ten bullet-point list of “certain secrets” — sum up everything perfectly; so well, in fact that they render the rest of the book somewhat redundant, except for the pleasant corporate vignettes.

published 11/17/08 in The Miami Herald

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