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    Published on: January 15, 2013

    by Michael Sansolo

    Back in my high school days I was something of a mediocre track runner. Yet I gleefully explain to people that my personal best time could have won me an Olympic medal if only I had been born 40 years earlier and if I were a woman.

    Context matters in any story and it’s especially important when it comes to competition. Any business can look fabulous in one light and weak in another. It matters most when that other light includes your main competitor, who finds ways to make you look tired and dated.

    Consider this lesson from the city of mega-theme parks, Orlando, Florida.

    First, an explanation: For reasons I still can’t fathom, my two young-adult-aged children pushed for a family excursion to Orlando this winter. Although they have grown up nicely and maturely, when given the choice of where to go for a short vacation, one said the relatively new Harry Potter theme park at Universal, and the other opted for the new Fantasyland expansion in Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

    In the process, we got a lesson in competition.

    Harry Potter’s World is amazing. The detail is incredible, whether in the Hogwarts School or the hidden wizard shops of London or Hogsmeade. The park features two roller coasters, one of which has nicely themed features. Best of all is a ride through Hogwarts that combines elements of a flight simulator, a roller coaster and the Potter movies. In short, it works!

    But that’s it. While I love the Harry Potter books and movies, the park held me (and the family) for just so long. Once we wondered out of that section, into Universal’s “Islands of Adventure," the experience starts to wane. The Jurassic Park area is as lifeless as some of the films. The cartoon area features comic strips that I vaguely recall my parents talking about. (Gasoline Alley? Really?) And I have no idea what the Atlantis/Poseidon area is all about other than a trip through theme park attractions that starting failing in the 1960s.

    Beyond Harry Potter, only the Dr. Seuss area seemed interesting at all to me, my family and, best I could tell, most of the other people at the park that day. Somehow the staff seemed in sync with us. The only non-performing staffers who seemed firmly in character where the safety person who used Seuss-like rhymes to give us instructions and the bartender in Harry Potter land who said she doesn’t serve Muggle (non-wizard) beverages, when I asked for a Diet Coke.

    (In truth, the single best performer at Universal was outside the park at Margaritaville. The young woman on stilts making balloon animals was worth the price of admission herself!)

    All that said the biggest problem Universal has is just down the road. Because in Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter seems to have met his match.

    Disney's Magic Kingdom doesn’t try to match the firepower of Universal’s roller coasters. While it has thrill rides, Disney clearly doesn’t bank on them as the attraction. Disney just works. Let me offer some ways beyond the long-known devotion to cleanliness and logistics (which remain stunning.)

    Disney clearly stumbled onto something big with the entire princess thing. Over the past decade Disney pulled together its generations of princesses—from Cinderella to Belle—into a marketing powerhouse that draws little girls at the speed of light. Now they come to the park dressed as their favorite, can buy endless accessories and even get a “beauty” appointment. It made me endlessly happy that my daughter is far too old for this. It’s great marketing and it ensures an incredibly expensive day at the park.

    Recognizing that little boys won’t want to dress as Jasmine or Mulan, Disney is pushing the male heroes of movies including pirates and princes. So even the boys can dress in costumes and accessorize with swords or Buzz Lightyear gear.

    But really, those are only the window-dressing on the big package. What Disney continues to master is the narrative it has with customers. Inside Disney properties the real world ends and happiness—as Disney projects it—follows. Nearly every worker (cast member, of course) stays in line with the theme. New technologies like the Fast Pass (to hold a place in line) or the high tech experimental wristbands Kevin wrote about last week enhance the experience.

    Likewise, while the attention is on new attractions like areas for Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, Disney made sure to add new features to old favorites like the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean among others. Nothing major but just enough to show that no part of the park or no emerging franchise, like Captain Jack Sparrow, is forgotten.

    And just like that, Disney delivers the lesson. It is the undisputed heavyweight champ, looking for ways to get bigger, better and more profitable, while down the road befuddled children look at an actress playing Betty Boop and wonder exactly who she is.

    Context is everything.

    Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    The New York Times reports this morning that Walmart plans to announce today "a plan to hire every veteran who wants a job, provided that the veterans have left the military in the previous year and did not receive a dishonorable discharge ... Company officials said they believe the program, which will officially begin on Memorial Day — May 27 this year — will lead to the hiring of more than 100,000 people in the next five years, the length of the commitment."

    The commitment is scheduled to be made in a speech to the National Retail federation (NRF) by William S. Simon, president/CEO of Wal-Mart US. The prepared text of the speech includes the passage, "Let’s be clear: Hiring a veteran can be one of the best decisions any of us can make ... These are leaders with discipline, training and a passion for service."

    The story notes that "Wal-Mart’s foundation has consistently been among the most generous contributors to veterans’ charities, committing to donate $20 million to veterans’ causes by 2015 ... About 100,000 of the company’s 1.4 million employees in the United States are veterans, company officials said."

    In other NRF-related news...

    • Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz suggested to attendees that "political dysfunction" is an enormous threat to the conduct of business, suggested that authentic leadership is needs to put the country on the right track, and called for retailers to be politically active, putting pressure on political leadership to end gridlock in Washington, DC.

    • In accepting NRF's Gold Award as the retailer of the year, CEO/founder Jeff Bezos credited an “incredible, planetary alignment” of luck and good timing as a reason for the company's success. And, he pointed to another reason for Amazon's enduring success and growth: "There are a bunch of people back in Seattle and around the world working their tails off on behalf of customers."
    KC's View:
    The Times notes correctly that Walmart likes to hire military folks because they understand the importance of organizational discipline, respect authority, and are dedicated workers. So this makes sense. But it also is smart for Walmart to engage in these kinds of activities as a way of taking the edge off things like the foreign bribery accusations that are costing it time, money and probably a little bit of sleep.

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    The New York Times reports this morning on a new advertising campaign launched by the Coca-Cola Company in which it tacitly and tactically acknowledges its role on the obesity debate. “The long-term health of our families and our country is at stake, and as the nation’s leading beverage company, we can play an important role," the narrator says in the first ad, which is aimed at policymakers.

    A second ad, scheduled to launch later this week, to aimed at consumers, focusing on the importance of exercising enough to burn off the calories consumed in a can of Coke.

    The Times writes: "It is the first time the company has gone on the offensive to tackle widespread criticism that sugary sodas are one of the biggest contributors to the obesity epidemic, and the ads drew criticism even before they were shown."

    Typical of those criticisms is this statement from Michele R. Simon, a public health lawyer: "They are downplaying the serious health effects of drinking too much soda and making it sound like balancing soda consumption with exercise is the only issue, when there are plenty of other reasons not to consume too much of these kinds of products."
    KC's View:
    I suspect that this won't do anything to end the debate and controversy, and it could even exacerbate it a bit as critics hit at Coke for suggesting that all calories are created equal.

    But I think that Coke deserves a lot of credit for broaching the subject, and doing so in such a public way. Avoiding the debate, in the current environment, is next to impossible ... so you might was well embrace the moment and engage. If nothing else, it allows Coke to deal with the controversy on its own terms. Besides, the best defense is a good offense.

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    by Kevin Coupe

    The other day, we found and passed along a story about a new fork that has been created by techies that contains a motion sensor - it helps people control their eating habits by tracking how fast the fork goes from plate to mouth, and vibrating when the eater goes too fast.

    Now, takes note of yet another technological "advance" that could impact consumption. Here's how Salon frames the innovation:

    "After binge drinking at a party landed MIT graduate student Dhairya Dand in the hospital, he responded like any self-respecting tech geek would: By inventing something. Three weeks after his alcohol-induced blackout, the engineer and former toy designer created a set of glowing ice cubes that let you know when you’re drinking too much or too fast."

    The story notes that the cubes contain "a circuit encased in an edible jelly mold that monitors the number of sips you take. An accelerometer tracks your drink’s tipping motion, and calculates approximately how drunk you are with a timer clocking your pace. And sending a not-so-subtle message about when you should slow down is an LED light that flashes from green to orange to red as the night winds on. Ignore the ice cube’s warning and an IR transceiver will send a text message to a designated contact, letting them know you’re overdoing it."

    To this point, the cubes - dubbed "Cheers" - are just a prototype, and Dand is looking to use, the crowd funding site, to raise money for production.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    Bloomberg Business Week reports that the new US Congress is likely to consider a revived version of the Marketplace Fairness Act, which would mandate the collection of state sales taxes by all online retailers, regardless of whether those e-tailers have a physical presence in the state where they are collecting those taxes.

    According to the story. "The legislation is aimed at boosting revenue by allowing states to collect sales tax on all purchases made by residents, including those made online. It has pitted brick-and-mortar retailers small and large, who must collect state sales tax on all purchases, against Web-based companies that only are obliged to collect taxes in states where they have a physical presence, such as a warehouse or sales office.

    "The long list of supporters includes state governors, who claim they are missing upwards of $20 billion in lost state tax revenue, local mayors, big-box retailers, labor groups, booksellers associations, and the National Retail Federation. was initially opposed but has also become a supporter as it has increased its physical footprint throughout the country. The opposition includes eBay, conservative research groups such as the Heritage Foundation, and e-commerce advocates including NetChoice."

    Caught in the middle of the debate are small online retailers, which might be required to collect sales taxes while not having the infrastructure, personnel or time to do so; for many of them, a mandate to calculate and collect sales taxes could be onerous, hurting their ability to compete both with bricks-and-mortar retailers and larger online merchants.

    Earlier proposals, the story says, "took small business owners into account, exempting companies either under $500,000 or $1 million in annual revenue." But there is no guarantee that whatever passes the current Congress will include such exemptions.
    KC's View:
    I guess that what this means is that whether or not a playing field depends largely on where one is standing.

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    Advertising Age this morning reports that while food costs are expected to increase during 2013, at least in part because of the devastating drought that hit many of America's crops, most major manufacturers are not planning to cut their ad budgets for affected categories. At least not for now.

    One expert says: "From our perspective, investing behind product innovation and marketing support are essential to ensuring that brands stand out from other national players as well as private-label offerings."
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    • The Chicago Sun Times reports that "after battling labor leaders, entrenched grocers and City Council members, Wal-Mart is gaining traction toward its goal of opening 'dozens' of stores in Chicago. After Wal-Mart opens three smaller-format Neighborhood Market stores on Wednesday, the retail giant will count eight stores of varying formats inside the city limits ... Wal-Mart plans three more store openings this year and in 2014."
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 15, 2013 reports that Campbell's Soup "is inviting developers to 'Hack the Kitchen' and create web or mobile apps that make people's lives easier when it comes to finding recipes and cooking." According to the story, the contest is offering entrants a blank slate - they can use pretty much any technological platform they want, and they don't even have to use Campbell's products.

    The only requirements are that the product has to "make the entire dinner process easier -– from choosing what to eat and how to prepare it, incorporating pantry items and understanding the health benefits of various meal options." And the deadline for entries is February 1, 2013.
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    • A new organization, called the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance (RDBA), has been formed, designed to serve as the professional group to the more than 400 retail registered dietitians throughout the US that most often work in supermarkets helping customers and employees with food and nutrition issues. 

    According to the announcement, "RDBA will deliver a first-of-its kind retail business certification program for registered dietitians guided by an Advisory Board of industry experts. In addition to online and in-person training at key events, RDBA will offer opportunities through its newsletter, website, and special events for the community of retailers and dietitians to share information."

    • The New York Times reports that the Swatch Group is acquiring the Harry Winston jewelry store company for $750 million in cash and the assumption of $250 million in debt. The Harry Winston company is getting out of the retail business to focus on its diamond mining activities.

    I have no idea why I am including this, except that I was so caught off guard by the headline. Harry Winston, after all, is the famed jeweler that had its products celebrated in the sing "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend," from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. And I think of Swatch as a company that makes affordable yet fashionable timepieces made of plastic.

    Just shows what I know. According to the Times, "Swatch owns not only the brand that makes colorful plastic watches but also upscale names that include Omega, Breguet and Blancpain. Swatch also controls the bulk of the sector’s production of watch movements after buying several makers of components. Go figure.

    KC's View:

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    ...will return. (We had our party at NRF last night...and thanks to all the MNB readers who came by to say hello. However, I got back late, and there was no time to go through emails. Sorry about that...)
    KC's View:

    Published on: January 15, 2013

    There are numerous reports this morning that Lance Armstrong - after years of denying that he used any performance-enhancing drugs as he enjoyed unprecedented success as a cyclist, winning seven Tour de France victories - has admitted in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that he did use such drugs.

    Armstrong has been stripped of virtually every victory and medal he ever won, and is facing the possibility of lawsuits and prosecution. Speculation is that he is finally admitting his drug usage because he wanted to find a way of containing his legal and financial culpability, and also would like to compete as a triathlete...but needs to deal with accusations before he will be allowed to do so.

    The interview will run Thursday on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
    KC's View:
    I have to be honest here. I find this perhaps the saddest case of performance-enhancing drug usage, simply because Armstrong seemed to be such a positive role model because of his charitable work, and because I really wanted to believe him.

    There is something pathological about the extent to which he denied reality for so many years.

    I don't care if he gets to compete again or not. Lance Armstrong is a cheat and liar. I don't give a damn what happens to him.