Nylon from Shrimp – A Marketer’s View

February 11th, 2013

NOTE to Readers:  Please don’t assume that I’m ridiculing this particular line of research.  The search for sustainable alternatives to fossil derived raw materials is necessary and laudable.  The ref’d article, however, provides an excellent lesson in how marketing and business strategy principals can and should illuminate the pursuit of new technology.

The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany has announced the (perhaps not-so-surprising) discovery that discarded shrimp and lobster shells can be used as raw material to make nylon polymers.  It’s some clever and interesting science, for sure – but it’s also a proposition that begs for quick application of some marketing and business development strategy principles.

First, a little background – “Nylon” is the genericized trade name for a small family of polyamide polymers invented and commercialized in mid Twentieth Century.  Small monomer molecules carrying an amine group readily react with other monomers carrying carboxylic acid groups to form long polyamide polymer chains.  Worldwide usage of these nylon polyamide polymers – mostly in textile fibers and in strong molded parts – is on the order of 5 million metric tons, 10 billion pounds, per year.

Know what other long polymer chains are linked by polyamide bonds, built from monomers with carboxylic acid and amine groups?  (They’re more commonly called peptide bonds in biological molecules.)  That would be the proteins and their amino acid building blocks!

Thus, it is “not so surprising” that, with some chemical wizardry, it’s possible to regenerate small molecules that have amine and carboxylic acid functionality from bio-wastes.  (In the reported case, the chitosan extracted from shrimp shells is broken down into glucosamine.  A few more steps of chemical wizardry then lead to Fraunhofer’s shrimp-shell nylon.

So, the technology side of this equation is, in principal, not so mysterious.

But, answering that other question – “Is this line of research worthwhile?” – is where we need to apply marketing and business development strategy fundamentals.  And the answer, in turn, depends upon articulating the goal of the research:

- A cheaper route to the existing nylon polymers?

- An exotic new polymer with uniquely valuable properties?

- How to get rid of some of those piles of old shrimp shells?

- Furthering the frontiers of basic academic science?

If the goal is academic science, then this project seems as worthy as any.  If, however, it’s driven by a commercial motivation, especially one with a firm time horizon, then the market and business developer in me says “Wait a minute!”

- The total crustacean shell resource is reported to be less than a million tonnes in Europe, presumably only a couple of million tonnes worldwide.  Probably not enough material to substantially impact the current nylon marketplace, even if you could overcome the logistics hurdle of collecting all those old shrimp shells.

- Currently used nylon intermediates – adipic acid, hexamethylene diamine, caprolactam, for instance – are relatively inexpensive and easy to make from oil, coal or natural gas.  Finding a cheaper, shrimp based, route to those materials will be a tall order indeed.

- The targeted shrimp shell raw material, glucosamine, is readily available today.  An R&D lab program focused on making samples of polyamides from glucosamine or its derivatives will reveal formulations with unusually useful properties.

One of our obligations, as marketers, is to help our organization focus upon the most productive targets for our development resources.  As this story illustrates, applying sound marketing fundamentals at the very beginning of an R&D project can point the work in the right direction and avoid some costly dead ends.

Managing a Successful Consultant Engagement

January 21st, 2013

Selecting the consultant that’s right for your project is just the first step in creating a value-adding consulting engagement.  To assure success, you and your consultant will need to write an unambiguous description of the expectations, deliverables, and project scope-of-work, and you will need to follow a solid project management plan.  Here’s how …

1. Write down clear, concise, yet detailed, project specifications – overall objectives, the subjects and questions to include, an outline of the methodology and level of effort, geographic or other limitations, the expected depth and detail of the analyses, deliverable, timing, etc.  Do it carefully – you should consider this document to be your contract with the consultant.

Building a good scope of work is an iterative process.  Use the first draft as the framework for discussions with consultant candidates.  Then, collaborate with the selected consultant to refine and focus your objectives and plan.

For expensive or complex projects, you might use your initial draft to solicit competitive bids.  This is a great way to identify alternative methods and to judge the candidates’ experience and insights.  Just be careful not to place too much weight on quoted price.  The value to be gained from an especially insightful consultant or innovative approach can easily outweigh the few Dollars you might save on the front end price.

2. Good communications between the consultant and your designated project manager will keep your project on track.  The trick is to decide how much communication is ‘just right’.  Too little, and the project risks wandering off on rabbit trails; too much, and you’re likely to bog down in minutia.  The main aims of your communications plan should be to 1.) demonstrate the consultant’s continuing progress, 2.) identify and resolve any unexpected difficulties or surprises and 3.) discuss and agree upon any changes to the scope of work, timing or budget (to be subsequently confirmed in writing).

You should carefully and fully document changes that you and your consultant agree to.  Some of the worst consultant project fiascos that I’ve witnessed were the result a failure to clearly describe and document changes.

3. Document the results.  Your project will generate a mass of information, call reports, data tables, charts and graphs – the WHAT of the consultant’s analysis.  Insist that your consultant go beyond the data to dig into the SO WHAT? – the implications of the findings and what they mean to your business.

Remember to keep an open mind.  The reality that the consultant discovers may not look much like your preconceptions

Add more value by collaborating in this SO WHAT? analysis.  Meld the consultant’s intimate and detailed knowledge with the company and market-specific context that you can bring.

Despite all the care you put into writing the project plan, and the conscientiousness of your communications and project management, you’re likely to run into a few bumps over the course of your consulting project.  Insist that you get what the consultant contracted to deliver, but be fair, too, and don’t ask for more than you originally agree to pay for.

Practical Advice for Selecting the Ideal Consultant

January 15th, 2013

Okay – You’ve decided that engaging a consultant is right for you (Should I Use a Business Consultant? )and now you want to make sure you get the most from your investment  (Maximize the Return on Your Business Consultant Investment ).

There’s a broad range of perfectly competent consultants out there – from loose networks of individual experts, to small ‘boutique’ companies, to large highly mechanized consumer survey houses, to the management consulting giants.  Here are practical guides to selecting the ideal consultant for your unique situation.

1. No single consultant is best for every situation.  Determine what sort of insights you need to address your business problem or opportunity:

- If you need to understand the desires and motivations of your customers or the strategic thinking of your competitors, you’ll need the experience, professionalism and high level contacts of individual experts or boutique agencies.

- Candid, off the cuff comments and opinions of potential customers?  Boutiques that specialize in group interview techniques (eg focus groups and their on-line analogs) or on-site surveys (mall or in-store intercepts, for instance) can efficiently orchestrate the complicated logistics of execution and documentation.

- If you need deep statistical analyses across thousands of potential customers, then you need the survey construction and administration infrastructure, and analysis expertise of the specialized survey houses.  In addition to the Big Name consumer and political survey houses, there are lots of perfectly competent boutique agencies who can execute statistical surveys (often at significantly lower cost).

- Need the horsepower (and the aura of credibility) to work with Top Management on major acquisitions, restructuring, or high risk, high Dollar initiatives?  The well known Big Names in management consulting provide the breadth of resources and experience, and the high level name recognition, that are often required to successfully sell and execute game-change initiatives.

Industry insider or consulting generalist?  In many cases, the breadth of experience and perspective of a talented and experienced generalist consultant – and their lack of industry specific preconceptions – will provide superior results.   Sometimes, however, there’s no substitute for an industry insider, someone intimate with the technical nature of your project and the idiosyncracies of the people they must interview.

2. Locating and screening candidates and selecting the right one – Get suggestions and refs from people you respect, within yours and other companies; search business networking sites like Linked-In; look for guest authors of interesting articles in business magazines, scientific or trade journals, on-line blogs, etc; search the web for ‘market research consultants’ and the like.  Armed, thus, with a list of potential consultants, it’s your responsibility to dig deeply enough to confidently answer two questions:

- Does this consultant clearly understand what I need, have the skills and experience to accomplish the necessary tasks, and the business acumen to interpret the results in terms that a useful to me?

- Can I develop a productive working relationship with this consultant, and will the candidate’s personality and ‘style’ engender a sense of confidence within my company?

Here, there’s no substitute for talking with the candidates – probably more than one extended, searching conversation.  You’ll pose open-ended questions – to describe how the candidate has approached similar projects, to suggest alternative approaches to your situation, to outline their range of experience across companies, products and markets.  When you’ve narrowed your list, you may want to talk with one or two of their former clients, to confirm your good impressions.

Next step – and next blog post – planning and managing the consulting engagement.

Maximize the Return on Your Business Consultant Investment

January 4th, 2013

In my last post we talked about when you should consider engaging an independent consultant:

> to accomplish things you can’t accomplish with your own resources, skills, and marketplace connections

> to ‘test the waters’ without ‘tipping your hand’ to your competitors or future customers

> to provide an independent and unbiased assessment of tough, contentious issues

If you haven’t engaged a consultant before – or have been less than satisfied with the experience – here’s a practical recipe for earning the best return on your consulting investment.

1. Select a consultant that fits your need – There’s a broad range of perfectly competent consultants out there, from loose networks of individual experts, to small ‘boutique’ companies, to large highly mechanized consumer survey houses (think Gallup and Harris), to the management consulting giants (Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey, and the like).  Selecting the right one for your unique needs will depend on issues like the nature of the business problem or opportunity you face, the particular industries and customer groups relevant to you, and your budget and time constraints.

2. Manage the relationship with your consultant – Your consultant is the expert, but you’re the boss.  You are ultimately responsible for the success of the consulting engagement – by setting clear expectations and deliverables up front, by monitoring and facilitating timely progress, and by sticking to agreed upon project goals and resisting the natural urge to pursue ‘rabbit trails’ and ‘scope creep’.

3. Monetize the results – No matter how insightful the results and recommendations of your consulting project, they’re essentially valueless until you use them to change your operations and the role your business plays in the marketplace.  Identify up front the problems you need to solve and how to use project results to solve them, make sure the rest of your organization is on-board with your goals, and follow through with a plan to change your product line, your marketing and business plan, or the way you operate.

Coming up … Posts with practical advice on how to select the proper consultant, how to plan and manage an effective consulting engagement, and how to transform insights from your consultant project into fatter profits.

Now, Where Was I?

January 2nd, 2013

Getting back into the blogging after a hiatus to catch up on the consulting backlog …

This post is a repeat of one from just before my hiatus, about working with an independent consultant.  

Every day, marketing and management consultants are leading businesses large and small to faster growth, more effective customer acquisition, greater profits, and a more productive long term direction.  But, unfortunately, nearly every day, other companies suffer disappointment and frustration in their dealing with consultants.

Here is some solid advice – from someone who has earned a living on both sides of the consultant / client relationship – about what consultants can and can’t accomplish for you.

A consultant is an independent expert who you engage to tackle valuable tasks that you can’t conveniently or efficiently accomplish with your own employees.

- Does your staff have sufficient ‘bandwidth’ to tackle a new, perhaps unfamiliar task?

- Do they have the special skills, the insider contacts and knowledge about a new industry you aim to enter?

- Does your study need anonymity to avoid tipping off competitors?

- Would an outsider’s viewpoint and mediation be valuable in resolving tough internal issues?

Your consultant will work with you to customize a plan – and then bring you the results – that accomplish your unique business objectives.  Here are some examples of questions that consultants are especially well equipped to help their clients answer:

- Will customers like my new product?  How much would it be worth to them?  How are customers and competitors likely to respond to my new product offering?

- What do my customers like about my company / product / service?  Why have some potential customers decided not to buy from me?  How do I compare to my competitors?

- How is my marketplace likely to grow and change over the coming 5-10 years?  What should I do to prepare for, and prosper in that future?

- What is the optimum organizational structure for the future my company faces, and what is the optimum pathway to reach that future?

Consultants have the experience, skills and focus to address these questions methodically and objectively, and to provide honest, unbiased analysis and recommendations.

Finally, remember that as good and diligent as most consultants are, nobody’s crystal ball is perfect.  Marketing is often as much about ‘soft data’ – about the motivations, intentions and preconceptions of your potential customers and competitors – as it is about the facts and figures of the marketplace.

Next week … Some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of finding and working with a quality consultant who’s suited to your needs.

A Quick Update …

September 10th, 2012

Over the past few weeks, the consulting project work here at Marketing Intelligence & Strategy Assoc has been very exciting – helping clients by identifying and evaluating  opportunities for new products, by helping them navigate a tough competitive environment, and by bringing them new insights into what turns their customer on.

We’ll be back soon with more posts here at The Market Intelligence Blog.

Should I Use a Business Consultant?

August 25th, 2012

Every day, marketing and management consultants are leading businesses large and small to faster growth, more effective customer acquisition, greater profits, and a more productive long term direction.  But, unfortunately, nearly every day, other companies suffer disappointment and frustration in their dealing with consultants.

Here is some solid advice – from someone who has earned a living on both sides of the consultant / client relationship – about what consultants can and can’t accomplish for you.

A consultant is an independent expert who you engage to tackle valuable tasks that you can’t conveniently or efficiently accomplish with your own employees.

- Does your staff have sufficient ‘bandwidth’ to tackle a new, perhaps unfamiliar task?

- Do they have the special skills, the insider contacts and knowledge about a new industry you aim to enter?

- Does your study need anonymity to avoid tipping off competitors?

- Would an outsider’s viewpoint and mediation be valuable in resolving tough internal issues?

Your consultant will work with you to customize a plan – and then bring you the results – that accomplish your unique business objectives.  Here are some examples of questions that consultants are especially well equipped to help their clients answer:

- Will customers like my new product?  How much would it be worth to them?  How are customers and competitors likely to respond to my new product offering?

- What do my customers like about my company / product / service?  Why have some potential customers decided not to buy from me?  How do I compare to my competitors?

- How is my marketplace likely to grow and change over the coming 5-10 years?  What should I do to prepare for, and prosper in that future?

- What is the optimum organizational structure for the future my company faces, and what is the optimum pathway to reach that future?

Consultants have the experience, skills and focus to address these questions methodically and objectively, and to provide honest, unbiased analysis and recommendations.

Finally, remember that as good and diligent as most consultants are, nobody’s crystal ball is perfect.  Marketing is often as much about ‘soft data’ – about the motivations, intentions and preconceptions of your potential customers and competitors – as it is about the facts and figures of the marketplace.

Next week … Some of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of finding and working with a quality consultant who’s suited to your needs.

High ROI Advertising and Marketing Communications

August 12th, 2012

Last week, I wrote about getting your advertising or marketing communication program off on the right foot (Advertising and Marketing Communications:  Why Bother?)   The first steps build a solid rationale and business goal by clearly defining:

> The business benefits and advantages that your ad or mar-comm program will create

> The actions that you want people to take, so that you achieve the business goal of your communication.

Today, we’ll explore how to put together an ad or mar-comm program that creates great value for your business.

Once you’ve decided what actions you want people to take – buy more of your services, recognize and appreciate the environmental benefits of your product, learn more about your new company or offerings – you need to figure out:

1. WHO are the key people who must see – and be motivated by – your ad or mar-comm piece?  Who , exactly, is your intended audience?

Sometimes the right answer isn’t so obvious.  Going beyond your direct customers – by reaching out to people who don’t already buy from you, or to the people who influence your customers’ buying decisions – is often the best route to selling more of your stuff.  Or, a piece educating consumer advocates, ‘green’ bloggers, and the environmental science community may be the best strategy for enhancing your reputation for environmentally friendly products and services.    

A little marketing research – talking with your customers (and especially with the people who have chosen NOT to buy from you), suppliers, community leaders, etc – can help you identify who influences customers’ decisions to spend their money with you – or with your competitor. 

“Influence the influencers, and the $$$ will flow to you.”

2. WHERE are they most likely to encounter – and to respond to – your message?  What is the best communication vehicle to give your piece maximum visibility and credibility among your target audience?

You probably have a pretty good idea of how to get your message in front of your direct customers. But it’s not so obvious if you need to reach people who’ve never heard of your company or seen your products.  Or, what if you want to introduce your new environmentally friendly offering to ‘green’ bloggers, consumer advocates, or regulatory scientists? 

The key question:  Where does your target audience turn for the sort of information your message will convey?  Those sources might be totally distinct from the communications vehicles you and your competitors traditionally use to reach your customers.

A bit more marketing research, building a profile of the groups that influence your customers’ buying decisions, will help you identify where they turn for information – and where your should invest your communications $$$.  

“Get your message in front of your intended audience.

Don’t expect them to search for you.”

3. WHAT is the critical content of your message – and how should it be presented – to cement the attention of your intended audience and motivate them to act?

Facts and figures, graphics, and your call-to-action are the heart of your message, but the impressions and emotions that their presentation creates are its soul.  Make sure that the tone of your message – its ‘look and feel’ – match the intent of your message – and the expectations and sensibilities of your intended audience.

Again, some marketing research will sharpen the focus and the appeal of your message, bringing you more ‘bang for your communications buck’.

“Make communicating easy – match message and medium to your audience.”

Knitted all together, these 5 steps will assure that your investment in advertising and marketing communication will earn you a healthy ROI.

———-  //  ———-

You can accomplish important marketing research yourself.  If you need help tackling bigger, more complex questions, or if you simply need an ‘extra pair of hands’ to help out with some marketing tasks, consider an independent business consultant like Marketing Intelligence & Strategy Assoc.  (512 769-2030 or bob@market-intel.com)

Advertising and Marketing Communications: Why Bother?

August 5th, 2012

Advertising and mar-comm programs are expensive, it’s difficult to even measure their effectiveness, and they sometimes drain time and resources away from ‘more important’ activities of your business.  Businesses often spend huge amounts of time and resources that seem to have no discernible effect on the bottom line.

So, why bother?  Because, of course, when they’re done well, advertising and marketing communications bring real benefit to your business and to your bottom line.

Experts say that the purpose of marketing communications and advertising is to influence the behaviors of key people in ways that benefit your organization – by educating and informing, or by motivating and persuading.

So … Let’s get started earning the most ‘bang’ for your advertising and mar-comm ‘buck’.

The first step is to think through the strategic questions of WHY? and WHAT?

1.  WHY do you want to communicate?  What is the business objective you want your ad or mar-comm piece to accomplish?

Are you introducing your new company or product?  Do you wish to educate the “influencers” whose opinions (about the competitive merits of your product, for example, or about an important safety or regulatory issue) determine your success?  Are you trying to motivate potential customers to try your product or buy more of it?

Make sure that you can clearly articulate a business objective which is important enough to justify the time, money, and effort you’ll invest in the communications program.

2.  WHAT actions do you want your audience to take in response to your message?

 Do you want to create awareness and a favorable image for your new company or product?  Do you want influencers and “thought leaders” to voice more favorable opinions of your business?  Do you want to persuade and motivate customers to click the “buy” button or open their checkbooks right now?

The actions that your target audience takes will determine how richly your mar-comm investment pays off.  Make sure that your communication plan clearly identifies – and clearly focuses on – the specific actions that you wish your audience to take.

The WHY and the WHAT of your proposed advertising or mar-comm program will lead naturally to the key tactical answers you’ll need to build a winning communications campaign:

WHO is the most critical audience for you to reach?

HOW can I most effectively present my message - the content and form which will be most appealing to my target audience?

WHERE are key members of my target audience most likely to see and absorb my message?  What are the optimum communications vehicles?

I’ll address the nuts and bolts of planning an effective mar-comm program in my next MARKETING INTELLIGENCE BLOG post.

For more information about the role of communications in building your brand and creating brand equity, see … “Your Brand is Your Business …

For help in creating a mar-comm plan tailored to your business, please contact Bob Brothers.

“Neiman Marcus or Walmart?”

July 25th, 2012

“The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is basically kaput.”  Those may be political fighting words, but to some companies, they’re the basis of a new business strategy.

Inc.com’s Geoffery James asks “Are You Neiman Marcus or Walmart?” in response to Frito Lay’s announcement of a new business strategy which focuses on the premium end of the snack food marketplace.  In the New York Times, Frito Lay’s president and chief marketing officer recently discussed the company’s new initiative – dedicated premium products made with special ingredients and packaging, and their own distribution and retail network.  At the same time, Frito Lay is ramping up its marketing to what it calls “value” customers, consumers at the lower end of the economic spectrum.

What’s behind this new 1 percent / 99 percent strategy?  Frito Lay’s recognition of the “bifurcation” of wealth that is driving 7% annual growth at the premium end, and 4% growth at the lower end of their marketplace, while the broad middle hardly grows at all.

For a US economy – and its network of global partners – built largely on catering to a huge and thriving North American middle class, Frito Lay’s move raises a red flag.  Although Inc.com’s James may overstate the case when he claims that the middle class is disappearing, recent economic history provides marketing strategists with plenty of evidence of trends in this direction.

1. The heart and soul of the US economy, for most of its history, has been a solid and growing middle class – consumers, workers, small business owners, professionals, et al – enjoying a comfortable and secure lifestyle, with a generally optimistic view of their future.  This secure, complacent slice of the middle class seems to be shrinking, with a few edging toward the thresholds of wealth, while the many face the fear or actuality of falling into the ranks of the poor.

2. Over recent decades, wealth has been rapidly accumulating in a small but growing segment at the top of the economic spectrum.  At the same time, ‘old money’ noblesse oblige and constraints on conspicuous consumption seem to be falling.

3. It’s true that “the poor are always with us” … and these days, more and more people in the US are at least feeling and spending as if they were poor.

This is the fodder for endless political argument, but, quite apart from your political philosophy, there’s plenty for business and marketing strategists to ponder:

> If your success has been built on mass marketing to a large, complacent, and thriving middle class, it’s likely that your customer base will be feeling less prosperous and secure.  Winning strategies will allow them to continue their middle class consumption patterns while, at the same time, rewarding their virtuous urge for frugality .

> Individually, the lower end of the economic spectrum may not have much money, but collectively, they have a lot to spend .  Walmart and other discounters show how to provide low cost goods in a mass market, low frills setting, but the marketplace seems ripe for upgrades in the shopping experience and for innovations in affordable entertainment and leisure sectors.

> More rich people, spending more of their wealth, especially on big-ticket, luxury products and services, offer a seductive and potentially lucrative target.  Just be prepared to provide a continuing stream of the newest bells-and-whistles and customized personal service to a fickle and demanding clientele, shielded from you by layers of intermediaries.