Canadian Pride

A few months ago when we were still hopeful that the Blue Jays might make it to the World Series, I thought I might have to stop watching the coverage.  No, the problem wasn’t that the game was too exciting for me.  No, I wasn’t overly annoyed by the clearly biased American play by play announcers.  Then, what was it?

I was viscerally offended by the Hockey Night in Canada commercials.


Voiced by Ron McLean, the super sappy text, replete with dramatic pauses in its delivery, told the story of the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast as the ultimate in Canadiana.

“This is the story… of a love affair.  Between a country… and a game.  If you want to try… to teach someone about Canada…, you go to the television Saturday night…, and it becomes crystal clear.”

Huh?   Are you kidding me, Ron McLean?!  I love hockey as much as the next average Canadian, and I’ll agree that Hockey Night in Canada has earned icon status, but seriously….. the gossipy, macho banter between you and Don Cherry is going to teach a newcomer all they need to know about Canada?  I assure you Ron, that’s not MY Canada.

MY Canada is the one reflected in a little page 16 news story about the police department in tiny Kensington, PEI who posted a warning to anyone considering driving while impaired this holiday season.  The post on Facebook, promised that those caught drunk driving, in addition to the standard penalties, would also be forced to listen to the Alberta band Nickelback during the ride back to the station.

HA!  When I first heard the story earlier this week, it struck my funny bone.  I too, am a non-fan of this Alberta band’s music so, for me, the tongue in cheek joke was a good one.  And from a marketing standpoint I thought it was a stroke of brilliance.  An angle like this generated press that your standard “don’t drink and drive because you’ll ruin the lives of yourself and others” public service announcement never will.  I admired the small town police department for its’ out of the box thinking and creative approach to getting a big bang from a non-existent budget.

Resourcefulness + Sense of Humor = Canada

The undertone in this story deals with the relationship between Canadian citizens and their police forces.  The Nickelback threat wasn’t a threat of force; while it was intended to be unpleasant it wasn’t intended to cause harm.  There’s something decidedly human about a police force thinking this way, and an understanding that the perpetrator of this drunk driving crime is also a human being with human emotions that are moved by music.

Resourcefulness + Sense of Humor + Human Empathy = Canada

But that’s not the end of the story.  Later this week, the Kensington police department DELETED the post and replaced it with an apology to Nickelback!  It seems that the author of the post, surprised by the attention it attracted, started to feel like a bully.  As the original post had gone viral, the Don’t Drink and Drive message began to be dwarfed by a “love vs. hate” debate about the band.

On Friday the Kensington police department posted: “I am sorry to (band members) Chad, Ryan, Mike and Daniel.  Not as just members of Nickelback, but more importantly as fellow Canadians.  I’m sorry guys because I didn’t take a moment to think of you AS just guys.”  The post acknowledged the charity efforts of Nickelback, in particular surrounding the efforts to bring relief to victims of the Fort McMurray wildfires, and expressed regret about thinking of the band as an entity rather than the band members themselves.

People from other countries might look at this part of the story and say that political correctness is taking the fun out of everything.  But for me as a Canadian, this is EXACTLY what our country is all about.  It’s the strength of character of Canadians to admit our mistakes, learn from them, and strive to do better by each other in the future, that really makes my prideful heart sing.  It’s the exponent in that equation.

We may not agree on what makes good politics, and we may not agree on what good music sounds like, but we all agree that we’re in this together.  One team.  Team Canada.


Trump Card


Def. – “A card in the trump suit, held in reserve for winning a trick.”

The Trump train is gaining momentum and I honestly don’t know how I feel about it.  That’s right, I said it…. me, a bleeding heart liberal, doesn’t know how she feels about the prospect of someone like Donald Trump being President of the United States.

Like practically every other Canadian I know, I thought Trump was a joke when he threw his hat in the ring.  His ‘Man of the People’ rhetoric, off-script comments and promises to run the country like a business reminded me of Rob Ford, another well-intentioned but Ill-equipped politician.

So it was with this cynical bias that, while on a business trip several months ago to Rochester NY, I tuned in to a Trump rally.  I had been watching Big Bang Theory on the Comedy Channel but when a lame cartoon was the program that followed, I began channel surfing and eventually landed on the rally in progress.  I paused, expecting that I’d watch it for a few minutes, quickly become appalled by its ridiculousness, and in short order be switching to another channel.

Twenty minutes later, I was still sitting there with the remote in my hand, transfixed.  Trump reminded me of some of my father’s friends, crankily complaining that the solutions to society’s ills were plainly obvious and occasionally crossing the line of political correctness.  He spoke about America as if it was in competition with the rest of the world, and pointed out all of the ways that America was failing.  And while I’m not a believer that society is a zero sum game, where one country has to lose in order for another country to win, I thought it was a brilliant way for Trump to connect with the competitive mindset of the American people.  Make America great again.  Who doesn’t want that?  I caught myself thinking… “Yeah!  Let’s start winning!  Make America Great Again!  …. Wait a minute!  What am I saying?  This is Donald Trump after all.”  Suffice to say, I suddenly, and viscerally, understood the attraction of Trump.

Last week I was obsessed with watching the Republican National Convention.  The speakers ranged from delusionary to profound.  At times the crowd seemed on the verge of turning into a maniacal, witch-burning mob.  It came to a must-see-TV climax, with Trump’s heated acceptance speech where he painted a bleak picture of the ills that plague America as evidence that choosing him as President is the only path to salvation.

The media have said that Trump’s characterization of America is inaccurate.  The average American’s economic position has actually improved in recent years, and although there are problems to be addressed, America is doing just fine, thank you.   But I’m not sure this is true.

Not so long ago, I was given “Legends” tickets to the Yankee’s game in New York.  These tickets entitled me to an all you can eat luxury buffet prior to the game where I ate shrimp, steak and fresh pasta to my heart’s content.  The dessert buffet was like nothing I’d seen before and I had great difficulty deciding whether one of the twenty flavours of cupcakes, five cheesecake varieties, multiple cookies, cakes or ice creams was my pleasure.   I sat at field level, in a cushioned seat with ample leg room at a civilized distance from the people on either side of me.  A waitress came to the seat and asked if there was anything she could get me (free of course).  Midway through the sixth inning, the guy behind me offered me an ice cream bar (he’d taken more than he and his friends could eat), and I accepted it.  After the fourth bite, I realized I was too stuffed to finish it and so I tossed the rest away.  The America that was with me in the Legends seats at that ball game was doing just fine.

However, the America that I saw out the window of the car service that drove me to the game, was significantly less fine.  Perhaps you heard on the news about the construction crane that toppled over on one of the bridges in New York last week?  Well it created a traffic snarl that meant my ride to the game took a detour… through the Bronx.  Row after row, street after street, concrete apartment buildings crowded the streetscape as far as the eye could see.  I had never before seen housing that was so incredibly dense.  Crappy stores at street level, working-age men sitting on overturned buckets playing cards on the sidewalk, and neon signs advertising daycare on the third floor of Chernobyl style apartment buildings.  Who knew that poverty existed on such a grand scale in such close proximity to those Legends seats at the Yankees game?  Certainly I didn’t.  It reminded me of the first time I visited my Grandmother in a nursing home and was stuck by how OLD the people were in there.  If you never visit a nursing home, you might think everyone dies at 85.  After all, how many 100 year olds do we run into at the schools, stores and gas stations where we spend our daily lives?

This motivated me to do a little research into the scale of poverty in America.  Take a look at this:

US Income Distribution

When you look at this chart, remember this is HOUSEHOLD income; the collective income of everyone in that household.  Line up every household in the U.S. in 2012, and $51,000 was the income of the household at the mid-point.  There are as many households in the U.S. earning UNDER $51,000, as there are over this figure and there are a whole bunch earning less than half that figure.

Way over on the right side of the chart we see those lucky few… roughly 4% of households who are earning more than $200K.  Regrettably, this chart doesn’t show increments beyond $250K because I suspect that there are some staggering incomes in this clump.  Some sources report that there are as many as 400,000 people in the U.S. earning more than $1 million per year.

This chart scares me.  It looks like a revolution waiting to happen.  ALL those people earning little…. versus a few people earning LOTS.

A few weeks ago, Craig and I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Requiem for the American Dream”.  The film is essentially an interview with Noam Chomsky, with concepts animated for visual effect.  I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that Chomsky was a name I had heard, but knew little of.  It turns out he was an American philosopher, historian, social critic and long-time political activist.  In sharp contrast to Trump, Noam was an intellectual.  A ‘wise man’.

Before watching the film, I had a vague sense of the inequity that exists in our current democratic system.  I understood that rich people get more chances at success than poor people.  Rich people get better education, better health care, and are less likely to face threats from the world around them.  Rich people know other rich people, which gives them more opportunities to build a great career.  I got those fancy Yankees tickets due to the fortunate circumstances of my life, not because I’ve worked any harder than that woman in the Bronx working two jobs to support her three children.  We all get that, right?  What I didn’t fully appreciate, was the extent to which the democratic system is designed to keep wealth in the hands of those who already have it, and power out of the hands of those who are poor.

It’s ironic that Donald Trump, a man who has clearly benefited from this system, is building a platform around breaking down the political system of insiders.  (The cynic in me still wonders what his angle is!)

But it’s always been this way, right?  Only a few people do very well, while most people do not.  It’s the American Dream…. Everyone has an opportunity to be rich, just work hard and it could be you.  The problem is that if you’re unlucky enough to be at the bottom end of that income scale, it’s NOT going to be you, because the system is built to protect the wealth of the people on top.  I highly recommend “Requiem for the American Dream” for anyone who’s interested in knowing the details!

The difference today is that the poor are no longer isolated, without access to information.  Facebook and Twitter threads travel like lightening across socio-economic groups and so the powerful can no longer expect that the secret will be kept.  Momentum is building for an anti-establishment movement and this is the sentiment that Donald Trump is tapping into.

I’m pretty certain that Trump isn’t the answer.  While I want to believe he is well-intentioned, I don’t think he’ll be able to work effectively within the system of government to action any of the positive change he’s promising, and I fear that his belligerence and ignorance could create much bigger problems with global consequences.

I predict that Americans will on balance take the safer bet, and that Hillary Clinton will be the next President.  And I hope that she pays heed to the discontented masses who are becoming increasingly organized to demand changes to a rigged system that favours the privileged few.  Because if someone doesn’t start listening…. Really listening… I worry about the long term implications of that ‘right to bear arms’ part of the Second Amendment.



LEGO, Parenting Mistakes, and a Stroke of Marketing Brilliance

With the Oscars just a one more sleep away I’d like to say I’ve spent the last week filling gaps in my 2013 movie viewing repertoire.  Unfortunately, the polar vortex and its ensuing cabin fever resulted in the Lego Movie as my last visit to the cinema.

In my opinion, most movies for kids are best viewed after the DVD release.  This way, the kids can watch while we parents do something else.  Those few kids’ movies that earn box office success, do so thanks to reviews that endorse them as bearable for the parent audience to endure.  The very best of these include a hearty helping of pop culture references and adult innuendo to elicit frequent laughs from grown-ups, and the Lego Movie was one of these.  Of COURSE the Batman Lego man is cloaked in a looming aura of doom and will only build with black or “very dark grey” blocks.  Ha!

But for me, the brilliance of the Lego Movie is in its marketing genius. 

When I was a kid, my Lego kits promised that I could build two or three things; maybe a couple of simple houses.  Inside the box were various colours of big rectangles, squares and ‘the little ones.’  If the kit was fancy, I might find a few flat shapes and maybe a window or door.  That was it.  The instructions were simple, which was a good thing because in those days children were expected to amuse themselves with their toys without parental assistance.  Once I finished the structure pictured on the front of the box and used it to elicit praise from the nearest adult, I felt no hesitation in tearing it apart and making something else.  Eventually, the instructions would be tossed and the pieces would be added to my jumbled bucket of mixed shapes and colors from kits gone by. 

For years, I found entertainment in that bucket, never constructing the same thing twice, mixing and matching pieces to build something new every time with only a vague idea of the end game.  I loved my Lego, and so it’s been a bit of a disappointment that my kids don’t share this devotion.   

Lego kits today contain what feels like a million different, highly specialized pieces in every box.  No longer can you simply ask a friend to help you find all the ‘flat-white-eight ones.’  Now it’s a search for the ‘little clear button shaped one with a hinge’, and finding it is like seeking a needle in a haystack. 

Neither Craig nor I would ever claim to be engineering wizards, but we’re not dummies either, and I’m not ashamed to admit that the instructions in Jack and Taylor’s Lego kits can baffle us.  The designs are so complex that following them feels a bit like tackling homework.  There are frustrated voices, garbled comments thrown in from people on the sidelines and occasionally angry tears.  More often than not, a parent takes over; eventually the kid gets bored watching and wanders away. 

When the thing is finally finished though, it’s fantastic.  One of Jack’s kits turned out a garbage truck that was completely operational.  The driver, glorious in his five o-clock shadow, was able to grip the steering wheel, the garbage compartment cantilevered perfectly and the wheels swiveled to produce a remarkable turning radius.  It was so fantastic that today, more than five years later, it remains intact and on display in Jack’s bookshelf. 

And therein lays the issue.  The garbage truck was too good, and the idea of tearing it apart felt sacrilegious.  It took us SO long to assemble!  Where would we put the pieces if we tore it apart?  Certainly we couldn’t fathom mixing them in with other pieces from other kits!  If that one, critically important, unique piece was difficult to find in a kit of 500 pieces, imagine trying to find it amidst a mountain of 5,000!  Never mind the risk that the whole search might be futile, should that special piece have been long ago sucked up by the vacuum cleaner.

When we realized that a finished Lego structure was simply too big to store, and we could finally bring ourselves to disassemble it, the pieces were carefully separated and hermetically sealed in a kit-specific Ziploc bag along with the instructions.  The idea was that one day we would assemble it again.  But once you’d assembled it once, and undergone all of the associated stress and crying, who in their right mind would want to do that again? 

Trying to build something else out of those pieces seemed like a waste of time.  It was patently clear that anything else we might try to assemble from that special mix of highly engineered pieces would be inferior to the thing that was pictured on the box.  In the absence of achieving this level of perfection the entire exercise felt useless.

And so my kids’ Lego collections sit, gathering dust either as completed display models or in collections of lonely pieces in the backs of cupboards.

My kids have Lego because my generation loved it.  While my childhood reaction to Lego was ‘yay”, the mention of Lego to my kids is much more likely to elicit an ‘ugh.’  I hazard to guess that my kids will not be rushing to buy Lego for the next generation.

The future of Lego looks bleak.  A marketing conundrum for sure!

Enter the Lego Movie.

The plotline of the Lego Movie involves an evil overlord that insists on the creation of distinct Lego worlds.  The Lego space world shall remain separate from the Lego cowboy world.  The Lego big city world shall remain separate from the whimsical Lego circus world.  No mixing allowed.   The Lego people in the various worlds follow strict instructions as to how to navigate through their day.  They must ALWAYS follow the instructions. 

Every evil overlord these days needs a weapon of mass destruction and in this story, that weapon is the dreaded Kragle (aka Krazy Glue).  Once an army of ‘Micro-managers’ gets every piece in the perfect position, the plan is to Kragle them in place so that eventually the worlds will be permanently sealed in their most perfectly, perfect state.

As you can imagine, a hero emerges to save the Lego worlds from this grim fate.  He sets out on a mission to free the Lego people, encouraging them to unleash their inner ‘Master Builders,’ casting instructions aside, and intermixing pieces from various worlds to create unlimited construction possibilities.

For parents of my generation, the movie connects with our memory of the Lego of our youth and the sadness we feel about how Lego isn’t as fun as it once was.  Interestingly, although it’s us parents that mourn the loss of that historic Lego experience, it’s also us that, like the evil overlord in the Lego movie, are robbing it from our kids. 

It is us that demand instructions must be followed (‘at least once!’).  It is us that feels compelled to save that remarkable item once it’s built.  It is us that shudder when our kids dump the pieces on the living room floor and some of them tumble under the couch.

From a marketing perspective, the Lego Movie is admirable in its potential to drive demand for a decades old product.  However, its true brilliance lies in consumer insight into the barriers that will inhibit sustained demand. 

It was my kids who wanted to see the Lego Movie, but the more I think about it the more I realize that perhaps it wasn’t intended for kids after all.

Back to Business

Last weekend, my daughter Taylor was reading something intently on her iPad.

“I’m reading your blog,” she said.

“Oh my gosh,” I said.  “I haven’t posted anything in ages.”

“Is that because you don’t have anything to write about?”

“No, it’s because now that I’ve gone back to work, I don’t have time.”

“Maybe you could write about how you’re addicted to Hay Day,” she said.

Point well made.

I was first introduced to Hay Day last fall, by Jack and Taylor.  Although in all my years of growing up on a farm I never once lifted a pitchfork, the concept of my own virtual farm intrigued me.  Before I knew it, Jack and I had launched a joint venture on my iPad.  At first I needed Jack’s coaching to help me find the hidden boxes filled with goodies and figure out how to price things for quick sale on my roadside stand.  But in time, I needed his help less and less and relied on him only when I couldn’t be Hay Day-ing myself.

“Hey Jack, I’ve got to go to the grocery store, but my boat will leave in half an hour and I’m still waiting for a pumpkin pie to bake.  Can you make sure that you load it in twenty minutes or so?”

Since returning to full time work this past January, I’ve had to adjust my Hay Day activities, getting my Monday to Friday farming fix only in the evenings.  But on weekends still I check in every couple of hours to make sure I’m optimizing the output of my production buildings.  Bacon pies, carrot cakes, strawberry ice cream cones, juices, jams, cheeses, and even knitted sweaters and hats, pour out of my little farm on a daily basis.

Connecting with friends on Facebook made the game even better.  Early on, I connected with Taylor, some of her friends, and my twenty-something year old nieces.  Playing a game with young people made me feel ‘plugged in’ and every time I helped fill one of their boat orders or revived one of their fruit trees, I felt like I was sending them a little bit of love.  One person couldn’t possibly fill all those crates on the boat!  I had to rely on other people too, often strangers, to help me fill boat orders.  Before long, my farm was fully knitted into the bigger community that is Hay Day.

A couple of months ago, Jack abandoned his farm in favour of Clash of the Clans and Taylor recently packed it in for Video Star.  My nieces also seem to have moved on, with Facebook updates now lauding their achievements on Candy Crush.  More and more, the strangers who help my boat have farm names comprised of Russian and Arabic characters and I’m coming to accept that playing Hay Day may no longer qualify me as ‘current’ here in North America.  I’ve been playing for almost a year now and my friends are all gone; I’ve succeeded in expanding my farm to the max and have amassed a virtual fortune of gold coins.  And yet, I still can’t seem to bring myself to give it up.

For me, the appeal of Hay Day is its industriousness.  On a farm, there is always something that needs to be done, and together, all these little actions lead to something bigger. 

Three years ago, when I said goodbye to my corporate job, I pictured a new and improved life of leisure.  I imagined myself spending time writing in my journal.  I would take long walks in the woods.  I would watch Dr. Phil and read magazines.  Unfortunately, I quickly learned that I am not wired for a leisurely life. 

The magazines I had wished I had time to read all those years, turned out to be full of fluff.  Every time I sat down with my morning coffee and tried to read one, I felt my mind wandering to other more important things I felt I should be doing.  So instead, the cupboards got cleaned, the baseboards got a fresh coat of paint and the crabgrass got pulled from the lawn.  I felt better when I was getting something ‘done’ but the endlessness of household chores made the whole enterprise seem futile.  The clean house got dirty again.  The gourmet dinner was soon eaten and forgotten.  The cupboards got re-cluttered and the baseboards got scuffed.  Even my marketing consulting projects were temporary.  Companies brought me in to do my thing, and then I moved on. 

Hay Day helped me remember how much I like running a business.  I like being involved in making stuff and selling it.  I like being part of a team and striving to achieve long term goals.  And I like being involved in something beyond myself. 

For the longest time, I thought that I worked in business because I had a mortgage to pay.  But thanks to Hay Day, and a brand new role at a company that is full of opportunity and void of bureaucracy, I now know that for me, industry isn’t just a means to an end. 

Target Update

My last blog on the Canadian launch of U.S. super-retailer Target, struck a chord.  I’ve never had so many friends make a point of telling me they’d read one of my posts, and sharing so vehemently their points of view on the topic.  So when I heard that three Target ‘pilot’ stores were opening in Ontario this week, like a moth to a bug zapper, I found myself drawn in.

This past Tuesday, people were lined up outside the Milton store when the doors opened at 8am.  I wonder what they thought when they stepped inside.  Were they dazzled by the brand-spanking new Starbucks in the foyer?  Did they get a little flutter in their chests as they wheeled those virgin red plastic shopping carts from aisle to aisle?  Did they stop to browse the first display of colour grouped costume jewellery, or was their eye caught by something deeper inside?  

Today, my first issue was parking.  Milton Mall is a facility that has seen better days, perhaps constructed at a time when people travelled primarily on foot and by bus?  Side-stepping potholes in the parking lot, I reached a mall entrance and snaked my way past empty storefronts and oddly branded clothing stores featuring footwear of the 3 for $10 variety, towards the Target ‘anchor’ store.  It struck me that Target will either revitalize this mall or prove to be the kiss of death.  No in between. 

Inside Target, it was a zoo.  People packed shoulder to shoulder and a checkout line that was a mile long. At first, I interpreted the empty shelves in the shoe department as a signal that the merchandise must have been remarkable.  But on closer examination I discovered inventory issues everywhere that were more difficult to explain.  I offer exhibit A:

 Target March 2013

This aisle, in the health and beauty aid department, was virtually empty.  I find it hard to believe that the hair elastics and headbands were so fantastic as to result in a Sunday afternoon customer feeding frenzy.  And this wasn’t the only area of the store where I found empty shelves.  Bathroom wastepaper baskets were picked clean, only a smattering of spring handbags remained, and my contact lens solution was out of stock. 

As a ‘pilot’ there are lessons for Target management in this Milton store, and judging from the number of staff scurrying around scanning shelf tags with laser inventory devices, I’m betting that they’re doing their best to learn them.

I hold out hope that the store’s official grand openings this spring are going to be spectacular.  My advice to shoppers, is to let these ‘pilot’ stores practice on other people…. Like sneaking a peek at my Christmas presents, my visit left me wishing I’d waited for the big day.

Target Practice

I pretty much stopped clothes shopping three years ago, when I decided to leave my job.  Economy was the name of the game and so I made do with the many things I already had in my closet.  The long neglected casual part of my wardrobe began to get more regular circulation and in time I lost touch with our local dry cleaner.  I revelled in the comfort of my new best friends; my Lululemon yoga pants. 

My consulting work was done largely at my dining room table so there was no need for office wear.  Teleconferences rendered my clothing choices open to my colleagues’ imagination and even the odd Skype meeting only required semi-professional clothing from the chest up.  However, this summer a consulting project came my way that required a fair amount of face to face client meetings. 

After months of professional isolation, dusting off my career wear was fun; I felt like I was getting ‘out there’ again.  But I couldn’t help wondering if some of my career separates had seen better days.  My friend Georgina has been working on a couple of blog posts around the topic of returning to work after a career hiatus, and more than once she’s referenced the ‘faux pas’ of showing up to interviews in dated outfits.  No one wants to look like they’ve fallen behind the times.

So with Christmas behind us, The Williams family took advantage of a free day last week to travel across the border to gorge ourselves on gross consumerism and some American size meals. 

After a full five hours trolling the Fashion Outlets mall, accumulating a gaggle of shopping bags full of stuff we did (and didn’t) need, and stuffing ourselves overfull at Applebee’s, we were ready to go.  But there was just one more item on our list… a pharmacy product.  Weighing the various retail options, we found that there really only was one answer in all of our minds…  Tar-get! 

Indeed, the addition of Target to our Canadian retail landscape is something we’re all eagerly anticipating.  I think of it as a fancy Wal-Mart full of stylish merchandise at affordable prices.  Every time I drive by their illuminated logo on the slick head office building off the 401 in Toronto, I find my gaze drawn to it, wondering what merchandising delights they’re cooking up for us inside.  Even the least enthusiastic shopper in our family, Taylor, was eager to say she’d been there.  It might even warrant taking a photo of her ‘in situ’ that she could then post on social media with the hope that her friends would be jealous. 

Target Canada has been doing a simply fantastic job marketing their brand in this pre-launch phase.  Their pop up stores have attracted crowds of Canadian fans and garnered media attention.  What impresses me most about Target`s efforts so far, is the degree to which they are taking a regional approach.  Oddly some Canadian retailers forget this simple fact, but Target has recognized that Canada is not Toronto and have embraced the vastness of our country in their marketing plans.  Check out the coast to coast Holiday Road Trip promo they ran in the weeks leading up to Christmas:

Unfortunately, our first human interaction at Target in Niagara Falls, NY was an intoxicated hobo shuffling through the foyer.  I suppose that can happen in any store, but you know what they say about first impressions.  Our second impression was one of disarray.  Far from the ‘healthy mess’ merchandising strategy of legendary retailer Jean Coutu, this could only be described as a dirty mess.  Shopping carts were tattered, and staff wore wash weary red pinnies.  Merchandise lay strewn on the floor, having tumbled from half empty shelves, and Taylor slipped twice on a slimy substance in the middle of the aisle.  Unlike the spirited crowds we had encountered at the Fashion Outlets, only a handful of desolate looking shoppers wandered this sad store. 

Having secured the item we were looking for from Target’s half-hearted effort at a pharmacy department, we continued around the perimeter of the store.  There’s nothing more American than baseball, right?  Surely the sporting goods section would be better and Jack would find something to satisfy his growing baseball obsession.  But sporting goods was just as threadbare and, to my dismay, so was the selection of home goods.  The clothing section was so disturbing that we felt compelled to avert our eyes as we passed by. 

Before we left, I dictated that everyone should visit the washroom on the premise that crossing the border might take a while.  I’d call the condition of the Target washrooms the icing on the cake, but just thinking about that analogy makes me gag a little.

If this is the Target that is coming to Canada then we`re all in for some serious lunchbox letdown. 

My humble prediction though, is that this won`t be the case.  My marketing spidey senses tell me that the first Target stores that open in Canada this spring are going to be awesome.  Their pre-marketing activities have primed us to Expect More (the first part of their customer promise) and I can`t imagine that they will disappoint us.  My fear is that in time, the second half of their customer promise, Pay Less, will make it impossible to sustain.  Trying to out-discount the competition can prove a slippery slope, squeezing margins until inventory is so tight that shelves become sparse and the cleaning regimen begins to slip.  With this, the upscale clientele begin to drift away and the product selection begins skew to a discount mindset.  Until…. voila!  We`ve got our crummy Zellers back again.

To Serve and Protect

It’s on those windy autumn days, when just looking at the ice cold rain outside sends a chill to the depth of my bones, that I’m grateful we’ve managed by some miracle to keep our garage clear enough to pull the car inside.

Our garage door had opened and closed almost 20,000 times over thirteen years, far outlasting many of the other builder-installed add ons in our home, when even the most generous squirts of WD-40 would no longer silence the ear-splitting squeals of failing mechanics.  One day it refused to open at all.

Our new model came with an exterior keypad so we could open it without the ‘clicker’ by punching in a series of numbers (which I can never seem to remember).  I didn’t think we needed this feature and in keeping with my reputation for frugality, I tried to negotiate a better price to exclude the keypad.  What if rain causes a short circuit and the thing goes berserk, opening our garage door while we’re out one day?  The salesman reassured me that a protective cover on the keypad would keep this from happening.  The price was a package deal with no option to omit the external unit.

So you can imagine my dismay when I returned home last week, in the middle of a driving October rainstorm, to find the protective cover lifted and the keypad exposed.  A plastic bag containing a “Water Analysis Data Form” and a small plastic bottle had been hung from the unit.

I was alarmed by the prospect that there might be something wrong with our water.  But reading more closely I realized that this wasn’t a public health initiative.  It was a marketing ploy.

The form read like an official notice and carried a number of logos, including the Canadian Water Quality Association and the Better Business Bureau, along with instructions for collecting the sample.  A series of questions asked, ‘When was the last time you had your water tested?’ and ‘Is drinking water quality important to you?’

Looking beyond my own driveway, I could see that my neighbourhood was littered with these bags.  They were hung on garage door keypads, garage door handles and even the odd light fixture.

This kind of marketing really bugs me.

Years ago, while chatting to our neighbours we learned that they had signed up for a long term fixed price gas contract.  Debating the merits of fixed versus market pricing for gas, we quickly came to appreciate that this seemingly bright and well-educated young couple had entered into the contract with little thought.  The salesman had seemed official, and gave the impression that everyone in the neighbourhood was making the ‘obvious choice’ and signing on.  I had often wondered how these door to door companies stay in business; doesn’t everyone know to shut the door in their face?  Apparently not.  It’s not just elderly grannies who get duped.

At the very bottom of the “Water Analysis Data Form” there was a telephone number.

“Yes, I’m calling to complain about the marketing materials that your company has littered throughout my neighbourhood.”

“One moment please.  I’ll put you through to the marketing manager in charge of that program.”

Several minutes of on hold beeps gave my blood ample time to reach a rolling boil.  While I waited, I dropped the bag of marketing materials into the kitchen trash can.

When the marketing manager finally took my call, I gave her a heady blast.  I criticized the company’s marketing practices and called them unethical.  And I fumed about distribution people having the nerve to fiddle with my private property and expose my garage door keypad to the elements.

“I am so sorry!” she said.

She really sounded sorry.

“The delivery team should never have touched that.  It is most definitely not the way we want our materials to be delivered and I completely understand why you’re upset.  On behalf of the company, I want to sincerely apologize.”

Well, that really took the wind out of my indignant sails.

“I want you to know how much I appreciate you calling to let us know.  I’m sure there are many people in your neighbourhood upset about this, but it was you who took the time to pick up the phone and call us.  You see, we hire distribution companies to deliver the materials and although we give them instructions as to how this should be done, we would never know they weren’t following our instructions if it wasn’t for you.  Thank you so much for calling.”

I didn’t quite know what to say in response – you’re welcome?

“We’ve been in business for many years and have a reputation to protect.  I want you to know that we will make this right.  Can I ask your address so that I can contact the team responsible right away?”

This woman was AWESOME at her job.  In just a few minutes she managed to completely diffuse my anger and endear herself to me.  She was just the kind of authentic, empathetic and articulate person I enjoy working with and she was incredibly passionate about the company she works for.  In fact, I was so taken with her, that after I hung up the phone I reached into the trash and retrieved the flyer to look up the company name.  And I started to wonder, “Maybe we should get our water tested.”

Now, I’ve come to my senses since then.  I still think the best water out there is the stuff continually monitored by municipal water professionals that pours straight out of my kitchen faucet for practically nothing.  But I share this story because it’s an illustration of the power of fantastic customer service.  There is no more difficult job than that of the complaints department.  The people who do it really well have a special gift, and the potential to save a company from damaging word of mouth that can render marketing efforts useless for years to come.

I worry about the future of customer service in a world where it’s farmed out to faceless call centres.  It’s easy to tell when someone is reading from a script; there’s no heart baked into the words they say.  When customer issues become ‘transactions’ billed by the minute, with the objective to mark the issue closed as quickly as possible, the true nature of customer service is lost.

And marketing for these companies, gets a whole lot harder.