Category Archives: catalyst blog

Steve Jobs speaks out

The online excerpts from Fortune’s interview with Apple CEO Steve Jobs are well worth reading.

Apple is a mature company who has retained its innovative outlook, passion and hunger. They know what they do best and stick to that. If they don’t love a potential product, it doesn’t get made. If they’re making a product but it’s not quite right yet, they don’t ship it anyway – they stop the project and get it right. They’re experienced enough to anticipate what customers don’t yet know they want to create something that they can’t live without. They’re totally committed to extraordinary design, stunning aesthetics, simplicity and usability. They didn’t plan to redefine the music industry with iTunes, but they did it so well that they did.

How could you not love Apple?

Do you want to build a universally-admired large company like Apple? Don’t make compromises at the start – how you begin & build your company is how you will end it.

What’s in it for me?

In the battle for Australian ice cream cone supremacy, Nestle and Streets are currently going head to head with expensive TVC campaigns, promoting their Drumstick and Cornetto respectively. Here are their commercials:

Watching the ads, it seems that Streets have a better handle on the ‘what’s in it for me?’ factor – their tagline of ‘no boring bits’ is a compelling difference between their cone and the competition. The axe-weilding maniac clearly demonstrates the difference – we don’t need to believe Streets, we can see the difference.

Nestle, by comparison, appear to be taking a social proof / nostalgia line, that Drumsticks have been part of the Australian summer experience since 1963. This might encourage us to get to the corner store to buy an ice cream, but standing at the fridge which ice cream will we choose? Maybe the one with ‘no boring bits’ rather than the one that was first made in ’63.

Ensure your products have a compelling advantage over the competition (one that consumers will find compelling, not you) and in every instance of your customer-facing material, ensure that it passes the ‘what’s in it for me?’ test – clearly communicate that compelling advantage. If you don’t, you’re wasting your precious cash, your time and another opportunity to turn consumers into customers.

The Long Tail, 1,000 True Fans & Idea Generation

Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson wrote about The Long Tail in 2004. The idea is that publishing and distribution used to be controlled by the powerful elite who could invest in expensive content creation, owned the distribution channels and were always looking for the next big hit. Now, however, content creation and distribution have been democratised by technology and the internet respectively, allowing for new content producers to make niche content. Content in increasingly narrow niches makes increasingly smaller (but not zero) sales, hence the shape of the long tail. Corporately, however, the long tail accounts for a significant proportion of sales and it’s the aggregators – Amazon, iTunes, etc – who are cleaning up.

Kevin Kelly (the founding editor of Wired magazine) wrote a recent article (found by Seth) on the long tail and how it’s great for the aggregators, fabulous for consumers but not so good for niche artists who are selling a few albums a week, say, out on the long tail. Kevin has a brilliant solution – to create 1,000 True Fans. True Fans are people who wait with baited breath for the next album / exhibition / book and attend every show or book signing. 1,000 is the number that an artist probably needs to survive, and it’s an achievable number to create. With this new framework an artist can take heart – they don’t need to convert the world nor do they need to be lost in the long tail. They can focus on creating 1,000 fans.

This works in business too, of course. You don’t need to change the world, you just need to create those 10, 100, 1,000 or 10,000 customers (depending on the value of your sales) who love absolutely everything about who you are, what you do and keep coming back for more. This is a great encouragement to small business owners who are rightly concerned about their message being lost in the noise of mainstream media and advertising. You don’t have to go to the millions, you just have to build your fan base and have ongoing, direct conversations with them. Do read & digest Kevin’s article for inspiration.

Kevin’s solution reminded me of a useful book by innovation consultant Ken Hudson, called The Idea Generator. This book lives in my laptop bag, ready for when I need inspiration solving a problem. It contains 60 tools to:

  • solve problems in a more powerful way,
  • create new growth opportunities,
  • immediately improve your performance,
  • enhance your teams performance,
  • help you sell with more impact, and
  • deliver breakthrough leadership results.

The premise of the book is that we often come up with the same solutions because we look at the same problem through the same lens. By changing our lens (how we view a problem) and/or looking at a different problem (eg. instead of ‘how can we increase customer satisfaction?’ ask ‘how can we make people more passionate about our brand?’, say), we can come up with new solutions. And by looking at multiple problems through multiple lenses we can come up with multiple solutions. The 60 tools are methods of changing lens or changing the problem to suit different situations.

Kevin’s solution is consistent with the third tool in The Idea Generator – Find new measurements. This tool advises that we create new, different measurements and solve the problem in the light of these. For an artist, the conventional method of measuring success might be ranking in the music charts or radio airplay. Kevin points out that this is unnecessary – the new measurements artists (and business owners) should focus on the number of fans they have who consistently buying their products. With this new measurement, artists (and you) can now find solutions to do just that – build your fan base. Good luck.


Storytelling is a method of creating an emotional connection between you and consumers, one that bypasses the filters that protect them from the noise and clutter of modern life. It works because it replicates how friends communicate – through stories rather than the transfer of facts and figures.

Consider Honda, who wanted to convey their commitment to and success in achieving their impossible dreams. They could have tried listing their achievements or spouting figures but they created this masterpiece instead:

You ‘ve just willingly participated in a Honda history lesson, spanning 50 years and highlighting 12 of their most significant vehicles and motor sport achievements. Honda paid you to educate yourself about their passion & products by offering Andy Williams ‘ compelling narrative (the song), the filmic visuals of stunning Kiwi scenery and allowing you to vicariously enjoy the character’s Honda-derived pleasure.

Here’s the current Australian campaign for Nestle Diet yogurt:

Nestle have reinforced their ‘No unexpected calories’ tagline for Diet yogurt by using the familiar metaphors of a courier & female friends conversing, playfully but directly attacking other ‘light ‘ snacks, reminding women of their thighs and showing Kate ‘s confidence & blissful ignorance in eating Diet yogurt. You were paid to educate yourself on Diet yogurt with humour that ‘s still funny after multiple viewings.

Renault have a different take on vehicle safety:

You ‘ve just been shown multiple full frontal, offset frontal and side impact collisions for eight models in their range and seen each of the passenger safety cells remain intact. Normal crash testing images are of manikins hitting concrete barriers in strangely painted cars and are as interesting as watching paint dry. By using the metaphor of a ballet, simple but beautiful visuals, playful music and a large dose of the unexpected (how many car ads have you seen where the cars are crashed?) you were pleased to educate yourself that Renault have the safest car range ever, with 8 models achieving a 5 star NCAP rating.

Then there ‘s Jim Beam (small town nostalgia), Apple (versus PC), Mainland cheese (farmers who take life at a gentle pace), Bud Light (male rituals) – the list goes on and on.

Of course, you don ‘t need to invest in an expensive television commercial to tell stories. Where possible you should tell your story – one that is truthful to you & your products and is meaningful to your target audience – consistently in every customer-facing interaction.


I love Hugh McLeod ‘s musings on how to be creative – I come back to it every few months to check my sanity. Rather than point out my favourite sections, I recommend you find fifteen minutes and read it all in one sitting.

On creativity and education, this TED talk by Sir Ken Robinson struck a deep chord with me. Again I recommend that you find twenty minutes to view it in full, but if pressed for time watch at least these sections:

5:30 – 6:30? Creativity is the willingness to make mistakes
11:15 ->? How our education system discourages creativity
15:00 ->? Epiphanies – how Gillian Lynne discovered her talent.

I can very much relate to Gillian’s story. Not in the sense of claiming to have a world-class talent hidden within me (here ‘s hoping), but in the sense of being a non-standard pupil & employee who has from time to time provided unwelcome challenges to lecturers, former employers and family members.

Over the last few years I’ve worked most of it out, aided significantly by the Myers-Briggs framework (I’m an ENTP). One of my key abilities is to connect disparate ideas to form new ideas or solutions, and the requisite input to this is new ideas. Give me new information, ideas, concepts, situations & challenges and I will enthusiastically absorb this information for instant reuse in new situations. I do this more rapidly and comprehensively than anyone I know.

Put me, however, in a mundane environment and my ability to connect ideas will transport my mind elsewhere, leading to intense frustration, failure to complete mundane tasks and subsequent complications for myself and others relying upon me. I cope less well with mundane environments than anyone I know.

Armed with this knowledge I now know:

  • what types of projects light my fire,
  • which situations to avoid or work around, and
  • to ignore well-intentioned but misinformed advice to persist in mundane environments.

Perhaps Gillian’s story resonates with you as well – I encourage you to overcome the weight of others’ expectations to learn what truly drives your passion. You won’t regret it.

Complexity, friend and foe

In business startup, complexity is your friend. The harder it is to start your business, the less likely a competitor can follow in your footsteps. Embrace and welcome it, provided that you have the competency, resources and support to push through it. It’s the dip that makes your venture valuable.

Once your business is up and running, complexity is your foe. A complex business model, website or sales process will confuse, dissuade or frustrate potential customers and limit your plans to change the world. Destroy it. To this end I recommend a great speech by Bill Gates on never surrendering to complexity, courtesy of Presentation Zen.


A few years ago, Dove started their campaign for real beauty. For Dove it was a point of differentiation but it was more than that – a core belief that a) the cosmetics industry negatively impacts women’s (and particularly young women’s) self-esteem and b) real beauty exists in all women. It’s been enormously successful for Dove, so successful that Nivea has recently started a poor imitation of the campaign.

Here are three examples of Dove’s campaign and the latest ad from Nivea. Firstly, Dove’s 70 second ‘Evolution’ film released virally a couple of years ago, showing how fake images of models really are: (email readers click through to view)

Secondly, Dove’s ‘True Colours’ ad – a clear statement of belief without selling any product at all:

Thirdly, an advertisement from Dove on their pro-age range of products, a brilliant counterpoint to the proliferation of anti-aging products on the market:

Finally, here’s Nivea’s lacklustre me-too campaign which is currently running on Australian commercial TV:

In his book BE Brands, author Simon Hammond explains how brands with core BElief foster a desire for BElonging from consumers. If the brand exhibits BEhaviour consistent with their BElief then they can expect amazing BEhaviour in response from their consumers. Dove has achieved this to a remarkable degree by sharing a clear and original BElief. Nivea will, however, need to come up with the own BELief and share it with much greater clarity than the advertisement above.

As for your business, your BElief can be simple and does not require the investment that Dove has devoted to theirs – it just has to be yours and not faked. Simon Hammond’s advice is to be who you are, to “start with your passion … follow your real spirit, align that with the real lives of consumers and see where you end up”.

Design is in the details

I loved this 15 minute talk by Paul Bennett of design innovation firm IDEO. In it he highlights some fabulous, empathic solutions and explains how they were created.

Paul’s main points are that designers need to:

  • reconcile what organisations want with what individuals need,
  • look at situations from ‘the person out’ rather than ‘the organisation in’,
  • consider the human element of a solution and foster it,
  • look at people’s ‘thoughtless acts’ which contain significant meaning,
  • have a beginners mind – look at ideas afresh, and
  • communicate clearly and simply with their clients.

Also that:

  • good solutions are often staring us in the face,
  • tiny solutions can make a huge difference, and
  • many significant inventions come from observing small interactions.

What small changes could you make to your offering that will have significant, positive impacts on your customers?

Experiences: Build-A-Bear Workshop, Pete the Pom

I pity the teddy bear stores that sell just bears – Build-A-Bear Workshop delivers an experience ‘where best friends are made’. Here’s a video that a customer has made about their visit (because Aunt Debra sent a gift card). Don’t skip what the kids have to say.

Children follow this process, posted on the wall of the store:

  • Choose Me (select an empty bear from around 20 styles)
  • Hear Me (a prerecorded/personally recorded sound or heartbeat)
  • Stuff Me (insert a heart, make a wish and child presses button to fill)
  • Stitch Me
  • Fluff Me (brush the bear on a stand which looks like a child’s bath)
  • Name Me (name the bear, print a birth certificate)
  • Dress Me (choosing from a wide range of clothing & accessories)
  • Take Me Home (in a home-shaped box)

Because Build-A-Bear Workshop provides every opportunity for kids to personally create and bond with their bear in-store, the bear is highly anticipated, lovingly made, unique to each child and cherished longer than the average bear. This in turn makes the bear worth more to the parents who happily pay higher prices, giving more profit to the store owner.

Most products can be turned into experiences of one form or another, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a large investment. My local shoe repairer is called ‘Pete the Pom’ and the entire district knows him. He ends every sentence with either ‘me handsome’ or ‘my lovely’ as in ‘What’s wrong wiv your ‘eels, my lovely?’ or ‘That’d be fifteen bucks if that’s alrigh’, me handsome’. We all know he’s hamming it up but we love it, love him and love his work. He doesn’t repair shoes, he makes us feel good. Sure, his style doesn’t suit everyone but he doesn’t care – visit on a Saturday morning and there’s a queue well out the door of his tiny store.

Take every opportunity to turn your product into a customer experience.

Gordon Ramsay, restaurant catalyst

I love watching the UK version of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, a TV show featuring one of the world’s most successful chefs delivering weeklong, intense and foul-mouthed crash courses on how to run a restaurant for those who desperately need it.

Here’s the first ten minutes of one episode:

Gordon follows more or less the same consulting method each episode:

1. Visit as a customer
Gordon visits, tries the food & samples the service. He provides critical feedback, pulling no punches, to the assembled owner and staff.

2. Obtain commitment to change
Gordon shows how bad things really are and obtains commitment from everyone to change.

3. Observe staff
Gordon steps into the kitchen and watches the chefs and service staff at work. Typically owners haven’t put systems in place either in service or the kitchen, don’t have properly trained staff and don’t have enough experience to improve the situation.

4. Demonstrate viability
Most owners cannot go much further financially and have reached desperation point. Gordon demonstrates how the business can be turned around, sometimes running trials to show how much money can be made.

5. Inject business sense
Gordon puts systems in place across the restaurant, leverages relationships to get better deals on business inputs and finds contra deal opportunities such as cross-promotion.

6. Rebuild passion
Usually the staff have wallowed in mediocrity for so long that they’ve lost all interest in their job. Gordon works with them to restore passion, care, attention & love for food.

7. Provide focus
Typically the restaurant has an inconsistent theme and a menu without focus. Gordon says “a good restaurant does one thing brilliantly, a bad one does fifty badly” and typically cuts the menu down to 5 excellent (& simple to prepare) dishes per course.

8. Restore confidence
Gordon often provides the staff with a surprise challenge that irons out problems in the kitchen and restores confidence of the staff and owner.

9. Consolidate the learning
Gordon observes staff on a busy night, irons out remaining bugs in the system.

10. Find replacement staff
Some staff cannot change or do not have the owner’s interests at heart. Gordon provides the owners with the courage to get rid of them and finds qualified replacements.

11. Leave
Gordon Ramsay know how to make a number of small changes to achieve significant outcomes. Then he hands control back to the thankful owner and leaves.

So that’s Gordon Ramsay’s method. It’s good advice for any type of business and entertaining to boot.