Toothbrush, Vitamins And Pain Killers

Starting from 2001, Google has made 127 mergers and acquisitions till date.

Which makes it nearly 6 acquisitions for every 7 months over the last 12.5 years. It is expected now that this M&A rate is further going to accelerate with Google – for the first time –  considering forging alliances with private-equity firms to help it structure deals.

During the recent Bloomberg Next Big Thing Summit, speaking about how Google evaluates a potential M&A target, Don Harrison –  Google’s mergers and acquisitions chief said

“We apply something called the toothbrush test, which is we ask ourselves, ‘Is this something people use once or twice a day and does it solve a problem?’”

Thanks to its immensely sticky nature (and aided by the current  rock star status of Google), this toothbrush analogy has seemed to have gained an instant global popularity and is shooting to newer heights in terms of recorded “interest over time” as we speak. I did a quick sense check myself  by entering  “the toothbrush test”  as the search term and this is what I see on Google Trends:

ToothBrush Test

(Click to see larger image)

While this sounded to me like a fascinating analogy that brings a powerful idea to life, the concept of The Toothbrush Test somehow didn’t quite fit in within the schema of what I had in my mind regarding so many things that Google does today.  For e.g., I began to wonder –  Is Google+ a ‘toothbrush’? i.e., does it solve a problem and is it something that people use once of twice a day? Or is Sparrow (acquired by Google in July ’12) a ‘toothbrush’?

May be it  is. Or  may be it isn’t. But probably for me there’s a missing piece to the jigsaw here.

That’s when I hit upon this very useful question that VCs are known to ask entrepreneurs. (source)

Is your product like candy, vitamins, or pain-killers for your market?


(Image Source)

To elaborate:

  • Candy = a product that is a nice-to-have, that people enjoy and can be wildly successful if it becomes a fad (like Beanie Babies)
  • Vitamins = a product that is a nice-to-have and serves an emotional need, used to augment and improve things but sometimes harder to quantify and has an unknown market
  • Pain Killers = a product that is a need-to-have and serves an obvious need, or solves critical problems that need to be alleviated and has a quantifiable market and thereby immediately monetizable

While it might probably take a ‘marketing master stroke on steroids’ to sustain a successful company based on ‘candies’ alone, many product ideas can probably be placed in the continuum between ‘vitamins’ and ‘pain killers’.

Vitamin Painkiller

(Image Source)

In this context, as someone who blogs at the intersection of  psychology, technology, and business –  Nir Eyal at the Stanford Graduate School of Business posits that successful companies are known to be so good at embedding/implementing hooks in their products that they travel along the above continuum from being vitamins for ‘pleasure seeking’ consumers to becoming pain killers for their pain alleviation as they cement enduring habits in them.

In other words, a ‘cleverly designed vitamin product experience’ hooks the consumers and becomes so important in their lives that – because it becomes a habit, it becomes a pain relieving product.  Flip through the following presentation by Nir to get a more comprehensive view on his theory of  Hooked – The Psychology Of How Products Engage Us.

That’s when the insight stuck me:
For any well designed product/ experience the question is not IF it passes The Toothbrush Test.
The question is WHEN.
Don’t believe me? Ask the largest cigarette makers in the world who are currently making a gold rush to acquire/ develop e-cigarettes and they will tell you.

Story Telling To Spur Action

Project Re:Brief was a very interesting marketing experiment (and a sales pitch) by Google.

As part of this, Google had partnered with five of the brightest “old-school” legends from advertising to re-imagine and re-create their most iconic creative work from a half-century ago for the modern web. These include:

  • ‘Hilltop’ –  Coke
  • “Drive it like you hate it” –  Volvo
  • “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” – Alka Seltzer
  • “We try harder” – Avis

Take time to go through this website and ‘navigate’ through the re-mastered versions of these iconic campaigns of the last century. The documentary on this project has been premiered at Cannes 2012 and went on to win accolades for its idea and execution. However, the big insight that stuck to me was what they had to say in their synopsis:

“Project Re: Brief ….. aims to shake up the ad industry and inspire new ways of thinking. While shifting formats and media platforms is one thing, as we learn from our heroes of the past, the basic tenets of human storytelling haven’t changed.” 

The evolution in formats/media notwithstanding, the fundamental tenets of human story telling are still the bedrocks of great advertising. For example, consider one of the key challenges of the current Integrated Brand Communications landscape. With brands aggressively taking on to various types of Paid, Owned and Earned media formats in the Digital/Social Media space, a big part of the challenge still remains – How can marketers use conventional media channels (Print/TV ads etc) to drive people online in order to continue the conversation further?

By just having the URL of the brand’s page or a message like “become a fan on our Facebook page” slapped at the end frame of the TV commercial? A representative statistic of the state of TV and Print ads trying to drive people online:

(2011 UK Statistic: Source)

But why on earth would I even pay attention to these ads – let alone feel motivated to memorize the keyword/URL and take time to actually visit the page? Ironically that device is often called “Call To Action”.

There are countless examples of flawed executions that attempt to drive people online through their TV/Print Ads. In most cases it’s not that the attempt wasn’t ingenious. It’s not that they lack a clear direction or an underlying strategy that seeks to unite different channels towards a central message. It’s not even that they lack the ‘innovativeness’ of the new media. I believe that it’s because such attempts seem to side step the basic tenets of human story telling. 

Why? Because, I firmly believe that ‘Powerful Communication’ – in any form- is all about the story and how its told. Especially when a piece of communication needs to make you reflect upon and react to something in a very tangible way. See the film below and notice how the ‘story’ is told. Don’t miss how dramatic it gets towards the end.

Till around 1 min 20s into the film everything seems to be ‘oh-so-sweet’ /’oh-so-cute’ , making you even ignore the whole point of this – till the moment the kid asks: “(But Hang on) Why are you even asking me that?” That’s when it begins. A spine chilling revelation, a shocking fact that makes you sit up and start paying attention. It wakes you up to your most receptive state before splashing the last frame with the URL. That’s it. It’s done.

How many of you actually considered visiting the page now?

This film (by Wieden + Kennedy) was first shown at the 8th Annual Clinton Global Initiative earlier this week and proves in a very powerful way that the classic tenets of human story telling are still as impactful if not more in making us sit up, take notice and perhaps even take action. Even if the action entails us taking the time and effort to visit a website.

By the way the website in itself is pretty cool and has its own well researched spiel to spur you into thought and action towards the end.

Any brilliant executions of Call To Action that you have come across off late?

The ‘Do One Thing Well’ Philosophy

Tervis Tumbler is a company that specializes in insulated tumblers. It’s in fact the market leader in the business of insulated drink ware. They are made virtually indestructible so much so that the company offers unconditional life time guarantee – even if currently owned by someone other than the original owner, any Tervis tumbler is replaced free of charge in case of issues. No wonder then, Tervis even carries privileged licensing agreements with all four of the major American sports leagues (MLBNBANFL, and NHL), nearly all of the major NCAA colleges and universities, all branches of the United States Armed Forces, and many notable companies such as John Deere,Coca-Cola and Disney including Marvel Comics (source: This Wikipedia Page).

Tervis’ secret for this success? Doing one thing well and doing it better than anyone else. Read an interesting case study on Tervis here.

Huit Denim does one thing well – makes denim. Period. This is actually enshrined on their brand story page and it goes like this:

They had a fascinating story of leveraging upon the mastery of hundreds of people in their town who had been erstwhile artisans of a denim factory that has been subsequently closed leaving all of them jobless. It is a great example for start ups, for branding, for raising funds, for inventory management, for strategic sourcing, for pricing and most importantly for story telling. In fact a line on their page goes like this: “The competition is big, we are small. They have a marketing dept, we have a story”(Loved it!) Another noteworthy feature: Hiut Denim will be the first jeans company in the world to have a History Tag.

There are only three major items on Chipotle’s menu: burritos, tacos, and salads. Besides, one thing you won’t find at Chipotle is dessert. Restaurant analysts say a cookie or other dessert at the end of the food line could instantly boost sales by 10 percent or more there. Despite that, the Founder and CEO Steve Ells doesn’t care. Yet, Chipotle has been one of the most famous Mexican Grills across many countries. Their secret – as summed up by its founder “Focus on just a few things, and do them better than anybody else.”

In fact Chipotle has recently started an Asian concept eatery called The Shop House – the South East Asian Kitchen and all you would find there are a few options. That’s it. No fancy dishes, no chef’s recommendation, no exotic sounding Asian names. Just the basics. Executed well. And it has already won rave reviews. 

The philosophy of doing one thing well is also common with the big tech companies. Google actually has its page of ‘Ten Commandments’  titled Ten things we know to be true. And one of these says: It’s best to do one thing really, really well. And goes on to expound on this in more detail.

Another interesting example of this philosophy in IT comes from Unix. Apparently the Unix Philosophy says just that “Write programs that do one thing and do it well”. 

Finally Fred Wilson – a famed venture capitalist makes a point in this extremely insightful blog on successful mobile applications saying, “Mobile does not reward feature richness. It rewards small, application specific, feature light services.” In other words, successful mobile products need to do one thing that is –  Do one thing well. 

Any interesting brand you know that focuses on just one/few things and does them better than anyone else?

Technology: Catching up with Human Behavior

What is the most expensive piece of real estate in the world?

Many know that it is – arguably – the white space on the Google home page. Obviously it was a user interface design principle laid out by the founders of Google to keep its interface as clean and simple as possible. We know that it is user centered design at work. The fonts, colors, sizes, layout and design of every single element on every single page of Google are known to be ideated, brainstormed, prototyped, tested, validated, fine tuned and refined before finally dishing it out to the end user. The objective: to facilitate the user’s interaction and her journey of finishing the task at hand without drawing unnecessary attention to itself.

  • That’s what has made Facebook dramatically redesign its interface – The Timeline
  • That’s what makes Twitter roll out changes/improvements in its interface on a continuous basis
  • That’s what makes to be consistently ranked as the Best Designed Website in the world
  • That’s what stokes the passion flames in Mac fanatics and equally…
  • That’s what is creating great levels of anticipation for the next iteration of Microsoft Windows as it is slated to be a game changing redesign of its UI to what is called as the Metro interface.

That’s all good and inspiring. But if we take a step back and ask ourselves why is this so pertinent to the current world order, the answer could be simple. Information.

Simplistically put, computers, web portals, websites, web browsers and Operating Systems are nothing but our interfaces for information consumption, data processing and finally content creation. Given that the information that is becoming available online is growing by leaps and bounds by every passing second, it is but natural that user interface design takes utmost precedence. The goal: Facilitate information consumption to be as intuitive as possible.

What further complicates the access and consumption of this boundless information is this word called ‘social’. Given that information is increasingly taking social attributes and contexts of time and space (almost in real time) the complexity of information retrieval has seemingly multiplied over night. Hence the goal now is not just to make information consumption as intuitive as possible, but also as instinctive as possible.

For e.g. if you want to search for restaurants in a new town, you naturally Google for it, pick some names from the search results, read their reviews on Yelp and then choose one that looks promising for your needs and budget. Of course search engines are now dishing out the search results in such a way that all these activities can be collapsed to one single search action. That could be intuitive design at work.

Now comes the interesting part. What if you know of a friend who lives in that town or who had visited that town recently? Naturally you would give her a buzz and take her recommendations and bingo your search is complete! It is instinctive of us to seek out references/ advice / suggestions to many things that we search for from the people that we know and trust. That’s how we fundamentally seek out information.

Sounds very natural isn’t it? Only, our online search experience has been antithetical to this very social attribute that we humans are instinctively used to. Not any more, the guys at Microsoft seem to say. See the video here.

In what looks like a paradigm shift in search, Bing has announced today that it is soon going to make search socially relevant to you like never before. Read the full story on this post on Bing’s blog.

This has many interesting ramifications.

  1. Everyone is now a key influencer: If I like Nikon on my Facebook page, a friend of mine searching for this brand on Bing could potentially get to know of my affiliation to this brand and can thereby start a conversation with me. And given that I already ‘like’ Nikon, chances that I would recommend this brand to her are high.
  2. Marketing on Facebook can now become even more challenging (and expensive): Facebook ‘Likes’ can become much more valuable than they are now and could even be monetized a la AdWords
  3. Online Privacy: Online privacy is slated to become even more complex and interesting as Social Networks evolve into these bigger entities
  4. Trust, Connection and Attention as the core assets of ‘connection economy’ can be radially redefined (for good or for worse)
  5. Mashup: This could open up very interesting possibilities of mashing up info from geo tagged sources, social networks, along with conventional web pages to make search results even more relevant and contextual in terms of time, space and connections.
Facebook is known to quote often that “Technology is now catching up with human behavior”. And today they seemed to have proven this again with Microsoft.
I Like!

Pillars of Digital Influence and what it means for G+

As per the recently released report by the Altimeter group, there are 3 pillars of Digital Influence –  Reach, Relevance and Resonance.

(Image Source: Altimeter)

While it’s hugely instructive as a framework, what interests me is that can potentially explain many trends that we see play out in the digital arena today. Let’s take Google +.

Google+ does a great job at building strong foundations given its legacy and thereby straddles 2 of the 3 pillars of Digital Influence:

  • Reach:  G+ rides on a phenomenal user base that Google has built through Gmail
  • Relevance: given that most web journeys start with a search and given the dominant market share that google has in this domain, G+ can naturally syndicate itself through these multiple touch points and hence thereby have the ability to target with relevance (eg: highly targeted ads etc)

That said, there is a critical pillar that G+ is yet to figure out – Resonance. Why?

My hypothesis as follows

First let’s consider 2 obvious facts about social networks and how they scale:

Social Networks Scale with participation: It is known that the worth of a social network increases exponentially with the growth in the user base. In other words, the more friends of mine I see on a particular social network, there are greater chances that I buy into it. In fact that’s precisely why I ‘graduated’ from orkut to facebook a few years ago.

Social Networks scale with time: Secondly, the more time I spend on a social networking site, the more valuable it becomes for me, simply because over the years I would have built a network of friends, interests, groups etc. that I am interested in.

As a corollary to this – given that garnering a critical mass user base becomes the holy grail of any social networking site, it gets all the more elusive progressively for the newer social networking sites  as users find themselves within very high exit barriers.

So what does it mean in the context of Facebook Vs Google+?

Inertia: As facebook users, while I, along with millions of others have built our own social networks over the years and have started creating our own digital footprints, Google+ now asks me for my willingness, time, effort and patience to painstakingly recreate a similar network on Google+! Does this offer any scale for me as a user? Hardly.

The Proposition: Even in terms of its core proposition, G+ offers me a very similar value as a social network as that being offered by facebook and doesn’t offer me anything differentiated (like say Linkedin). Does that entice me as a user? Hardly – unless I want to review it as a techie.

With all the recent news about Google+ over hauling its design of the interface and arguably even doing a great job at that, it doesn’t seem to be moving the needle in the right direction for G+.

It is here, I guess Pinterest has done an extremely smart thing – it offered a new platform for content creation and sharing and not necessarily a new social network. It just rides on the social networking footprint of facebook and focuses on what it does best – pinning!

And that could partly explain why Facebook finds Instagram as a very attractive acquisition – as it sees it more as an opportunity to acquire the ‘most valuable’ user base (most Instagram users are naturally content creators and not mere spectators or joiners) than as an acquisition of a photo-editing and sharing software.

It is really interesting and extremely instructive to see how Mark Z and his aides are mapping out Facebook as a Social By Design edifice strongly predicated on the 3 pillars of Digital Influence. Result: an enhanced social experience for users and value for marketers.

Newton and Apple

Well today happens to be Sir Isaac Newton’s b’day! Yeah the one on whom, legend says that, an apple has fallen and yuppie gravity was discovered! First check out this cool Google Doodle commemorating 4th Jan 2010 as Newton’s B’day.

Actually this is the first time that I noticed that Google Doodle has come up with a non-static design. I mean, as soon as you open, this delicious doodle comes up and an apple literally falls off the branch on the screen!Please let me know if there have been any past instances of such non static Google Doodles. Loved it!

Anyway, coming back to the point. The reason why I have mentioned this is, incidentally it was only today (before I actually realized about the B’day thing) that I have read an interesting account that connects Newton – Apple – Gravity – Name – Marketing. Courtesy the book: The Big Moo by Seth Godin. It was both informative and intriguing. This short write up in this book that I am referring to is called as “Isaac Newton’s Head”. Below is the copy of this chapter from the book. Read it, it makes an interesting read:


Ask any elementary-school kid about Isaac Newton and you’ll hear the same answer: “He invented gravity!”

Of course, Newton did no such thing. Newton certainly invented calculus. He also invented the reflecting telescope. He did not invent the Fig Newton, though. That was Charles M. Roser.

Newton gets credit for inventing gravity because of a tree in his backyard. He was sitting in his garden, thinking about the moon, when he looked up and noticed that an apple on the tree nearby was precisely the same size (to his eye) as the moon. As an object gets farther away, it appears to be smaller. In a flash, Newton realized that the apple was proportional to the moon in size, and the effect of “gravitas” on each must be proportional as well. Newton had figured out that gravity decreased over distance. More important to his reputation, he gave gravity its name. The apple never actually hit him on his head, but the term “gravity” stuck.

While Newton spent far more time on calculus and on alchemy, he’s known for discovering gravity. Why?

Because he named it.

To the average person, Newton’s contribution to science was a word. A word that described something that was already there, something that affected everyone, all the time. By naming gravity, he gave us power over it. He gave us a handle, which permitted both scientists and laypeople to talk about and interact with this mysterious force.

Organizations change when you give something a name. If it has a name, your peers can measure it. If it has a name, they can alter it. If it has a name, they can talk about it. And if it has a name, they can eliminate it.

Go ahead, name something. (Watch your head!)

What say? And yeah another trivia that I came across today. Sir Isaac Newton predicted the end of the world, and it isn’t 2012, it is 2060. He came up with this date through Biblical interpretation. (Source: This Article)

Long Live Newton! Long live the power of names around us!!