Days of future past: Pardon me, is that laptop a real Louis Vuitton?

Style matters -- and it has as long human life has existed. Thanks mostly to Apple and its devices, style now matters in technology -- and makes a difference in our purchasing patterns. Paul Greenberg reprises a post from 2006: References may have changed, but the lust for and value of style hasn't.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

Video: Microsoft's fabric-covered Surface Laptop is cut from a different cloth

Hey everyone! I'm back... finally, and kinda.

First, my apologies for my nearly complete radio silence. I was finishing up The Commonwealth of Self-Interest: Customer Engagement, Business Benefit (Harvard Business Press, Late Summer 2018), and my life took a back seat when it came to everything but that. But now, I'm in the midst of writing an extensive post on customer experience, consumable experiences, and brand experience -- what's the difference, why should you care, and how does it have practical implications for business.

While I'm doing that -- which will be out next week -- I was looking at some of the posts I wrote more than 10 years ago and found one that not only was I particularly proud of the what I presume is an insight, but of the writing, too -- and its value holds today even if some of the references are a bit outdated. So, while you are (not) waiting for the customer experience post, I thought (since I have sole ownership over this post) I would "reprint" it here for your viewing pleasure. It was fun to write, and I think it still remains important to think about -- even all these years later. This is not just filler, in case you were thinking I'm spinning something. I think there is real value -- and, tbh, I loved writing this one.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the revival of the 2006 musical blog piece, "Pardon me, is that laptop a real Louis Vuitton?"

"Life Imitates Art."

A not uncommon phrase, right? Well, every now and then life doesn't imitate anything you could ever imagine from any recent experience you've had with art or your most fevered dreams, induced by sleep or... something else. But that's when life gets really, really interesting.

I was reading CPU Magazine last night and I ran across this brief blurb on a laptop that Intel and Toray Ultrasuede were going to produce in the future (a "concept" laptop) that would use microfiber for a cover for a high-end laptop. Specifically, folks, that means, creating an ultra-suede laptop. The soft, leathery microfibers would be in blocks of color that would look something like a Piet Mondrian painting.

This mutant alliance even went to the point of getting a quote from the totally hilarious Stephen Cojocaru, the over-the-top fashion analyst who makes the cogent and catty remarks at most of the awards ceremonies. Here's his comment:

For many people, a laptop may be just as much an everyday accessory as a hip belt or skyscraper stilettos, so we're seeing an image-conscious culture demanding that their laptop looks as great as it performs. The ultrafashionable concept is a very forward illustration of what can happen when unlikely partners shake up the status quo. This laptop is so eye-catchingly stunning, I"m trying to find a way to wear it as a necklace to the Golden Globe Awards.

When I read that quote I was thinking, "Is someone putting me on here, or what?" I mean Cojocaru is actually a funny guy, so maybe this is a joke. A laptop and stilettos?

But it isn't a joke. I swear. (Well, actually, I think that Cojocaru is putting on Intel and Toray, and they don't know it.)

The official press release carried the quote. The headline called this a "touchable" laptop.

Of course, this got me to speculating. If we have a "touchable" laptop made of microfiber, what about a "huggable" laptop made of microfur? Or a "squeezable" laptop made of microrubber or a "kissable" laptop made of microlips? Or how about maybe even a redefinition of "sexy" laptops -- but that I'll leave to your imagination.

I did some further investigation and found out this wasn't the first true fashion statement laptop at all. There was the well-known Acer Ferrari, which was designed by Ferrari, and for some reason, that made it a Ferrari-like laptop even though all I could see is that it was kind of reddish. But the most amazing of all was the line nouveau fashionista E-Go laptop line by Tulip Computers. This is a line of laptops that has been developed with the posh female in mind -- the rich women who work and play in exotic resorts that have private banks for their funds and who have their yachts wired for the 'Net. Just take a look at the "diamond line" for that series.

A little more description from Gizmag:

The Tulip E-Go Diamond notebook is inlaid with solid palladium white gold plates in which thousands (80 carats) of top-quality, brilliant cut diamonds have been pave set with surgical precision. The magnificent end result also incorporates a unique square cut ruby set in both Tulip logos and costs 283,000 Euros (US$355,000).

Yes, you read it right: $355,000. Let me repeat that: $355,000 for a friggin laptop. Sell your house and live large... in a laptop.

From the mutants cometh the wisdom

As nuts as this is, it's not as nuts as it sounds because of what the underlying reasons are for this sudden flurry of accessorized technology.

The reason for the Ultrasuede Mondrian laptop was a study done in September 2005 by Harris Interactive, called (duh) "The Intel/Ultrasuede Laptop Style Study." It came up with a number of very interesting insights. Here's a few:

  • 73 percent of US adult computer users want to buy technology products that reflect their personal style
  • 76 percent of those computer users who admit to glancing at someone else's laptop PC are checking out its style or design
  • 40 percent of US adult computer users find their laptop to be generic, boring, dull, sterile, or lackluster
  • 60 percent would like to be able to customize their laptop with options such as color, patterns, and fabric

Of course, the last item on the list makes the whole thing a little suspect. I mean, if you were to think about what you'd want to customize your laptop with -- now think off the top of your head - would fabric be one of the things that come to you?

"Hmmm. Customize my laptop. Hmmm. Well, I guess if I had to pick one thing I'd like to use, to call my laptop my own, it would be... Ummm, wow, this is a tough one. No, wait. I know. Fabric! Yeah, that's it, it would be fabric. Now, I don't mean polyester, nylon, or anything like tha,t but maybe something in leather. No, wait, suede. No, wait a minute. Even better... ULTRASUEDE! Yeah! That's it. Ultrasuede. God. How stupid am I? That is just so obvious. Now that I've thought about it. Put down ultrasuede. The thing I want to make a laptop a personal statement is cover it in ultrasuede. Now that would be just me. Could I pick my own colors..."

Kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it? Its likely there is some fluff in this thing, but the main point, that the laptop, a technology that has primarily been associated with business and road warriors, is now seen, according to Harris Interactive, by the general population along with all the ubiquitous technologies we use daily, as more than just something whose value proposition is utilitarian, but in fact has meaningful value as a lifestyle choice.

The cellphone is another, even more blatant example of this "experience-featured" ubiquitous technology. It is an important part of our lives -- both our work lives and our personal lives -- which, actually, with the growth of Gen X's power, is becoming less and less separated. Even the most business-focused device on this planet -- the RIM Blackberry -- is being transformed by by the new generations of customers who see their lives in a balanced sense. Take a look at the Q3 Blackberry Connect device produced by Samsung, the T719.

Notice something strange about it? It's a Blackberry and it looks like a phone!

In this corner, contending for the 21st century customer's business: The customer!

My contention, in that strange dialect I call Greenbergese, is that the CRM technologies that we have been used to, such as sales, marketing, and support applications, even the on-demand versions of those, are not the technical capital of the 21st century's "era of the social customer." In fact, because the customer is not just becoming the central repository for value, but wants to actively participate in value creation with business, it is the consumer technologies and those service offerings adopted as platforms for individually meaningful "life choices" that are where CRM technology needs to be. This doesn't mean that I'm saying goodbye to Siebel, Sage, Oracle, SAP, or any of the on-demand vendors. However, their technologies will have to evolve and not just associate with some reorganized contemporary set of business processes.

They will have to integrate the features of newer technologies that facilitate market conversations, social networking, user communities and the like. In other words, that exist to transform and operate businesses not just as process-pushing producers but as aggregators for and partners in the customer value chain (more on that below). That will probably come later than sooner. We may be a few years away from that. I don't know yet. But there are some things that are both happening now and need to happen now. Even though the on-demand Software as a Service (SaaS) paradigm is fairly new, it needs to begin moving now to a new paradigm of Services as a Platform (SaaP). So that when you, as a customer, buys a laptop or a cellphone, for example, whatever your specific purposes, you are choosing a piece that will fit into the platform that you are going to use or are using for the services and associated goods you need to conduct your life, which among other things, consists of business services, meaning that there are businesses associated with them.

But you know that, right? Everything that you consume or use somehow or everything that's associated with whatever it is you do, you've purchased or someone who gave it to you did. Everything item you use to make your life "feel good" or you use to have a "wonderful moment" is purchased somewhere.

"No! You unromantic bastard," you say, "what about love?"

What about it? While ideals, romance, beauty, and love aren't tangible items, the instruments you use and the things you do to "acquire" them -- to realize those wonderful emotions, to be happy -- are purchased. There is a commerce decision somewhere in there. The commerce isn't what makes you happy, but provides you with what you need on the journey to being happy.

So if you are falling in love, odds are you are doing things that involve purchases? No? Just a romantic walk in the park? Well, you're wearing clothes and shoes and maybe a perfume or cologne or at least you're using a deodorant so that your future soulmate doesn't get a whiff and a bad impression, aren't you? If not, indecent exposure charges or a new potential soulmate are in your future. And you may have chosen just the right clothes to impress this person you are walking with -- maybe. Which means that you can choose from multiple combinations of multiple outfits that you own (i.e. that you bought or were acquired by someone for you).

You took a shower didn't you -- before you went out? Used soap? Did you make the soap out of thin air? Did you shower in a waterfall? You get my point. I'm not trying to take the romance or beauty out of that simple, lovely walk. Anyone who knows me knows I'm a romantic who prefers love and humor to CRM any day. (Some guy on the Microsoft CRM team unsubscribed to this blog because the dancing spidermen here "pushed him over the edge." Scary.) I'm just pointing out that commerce and the purchase activities of consumers and the relationships to businesses arejust a part of life, not something separate and not something that you can ignore -- either as the consumer in question or the business providing the services.

For example, if I say "priceless," what do you think? Oh, who are you kidding? Unless you watch no TV at all, you know the first thing that came to your mind is Mastercard. What do you think makes that Mastercard commercial so memorable and timeless and provides endless possibilities for its future? Because it is conceived around exactly what I'm saying: "Your journey through life is intangible and meaningful (a.k.a. priceless), but we, Mastercard in this case, give you the instrument to buy those things that aid you in the transport along that priceless beautiful journey of life. We can't be your life, only give you an instrument that supports what your life is."

Compare that to the totally lame and clueless, "Life takes Visa," which I trust will be changed to "Life takes Visa away from us" -- short-lived so that we no longer have to endure the torture of its incomprehensible message. Mastercard got the idea of the "era of the social customer." Visa sure as hell didn't.

There is an incredible amount of depth in every decision you make in your life, even a purchasing decision. For example, when you make the decision to choose that laptop or cellphone, you are also choosing, although opaquely here, the web services architecture it will run on, and then, more consciously the specific services that you will be needing or want, and also the features that mean a "necklace for the Golden Globes" -- something that not just is functional and utilitarian but is cool and makes you feel good using it. The service oriented architecture doesn't make you feel good. The services you need are practical. The services you pay a premium for and want are both practical and make you feel good. And the style, oh baby, the style, is valued for its coolness and how that makes you feel with your peers and even just for yourself at times.

If the businesses providing this platform aren't dysfunctional, they'll understand that because you/customer are part of this new "social customer consciousness" they need to provide you with the tools to continuously fine tune your personal experience with the product or services that you are using -- and if they are really foresighted, they can provide you with the means to co-create a self-managed set of experiences and products and services, which makes them your "business partner," not just a product or service pushing company. That's if the business is smart -- and for the most part, at this point, that's a big question.

The era of the oh-so-powerfully-social customer


I use this diagram in almost everything I give and every class I teach. Note that in the diagram there is a transformation from a customer-centered corporate ecosystem to a customer ecosystem. At the earlier stages of the customer ecosystem, the social network that I've been harping on was not as well-established, nor was value as obviously centered in the customer as it is now.

Consequently, with the advent of Google and unstructured, easy, and almost instantaneous search, as well as the growth of sites like Epinions, the transformations tended to be more in the realm of what Dante called the vita passiva -- the passive life. That meant that while personalized experiences were still on the agenda, they weren't social experiences in the true sense that I mean when I talk of the "social customer era." Value was intimate and singular and focused more around an individual who wanted to extract value from products and services, primarily.

So, that meant that the consumers, while in a commanding position, knowing that they could leave a company at a moment's notice and find the same type of products and services they had just abandoned, elsewhere and easily so, still were more concerned with scratching their own itches and using resources to do that. So, they would go to Epinions to get a review from any number of what were basically total strangers, yet were functionally treated as trusted sources, and they would use the information gathering they did to make a judgment. But their social interactions, even if they participated in the forum were the equivalent of strangers chatting at a bar and leaving, not particularly juiced to see the stranger they met again (unless of course they were really hot).

This was still a critical shift, because customers were recognizing that, in fact, they had the power to get transparency into a company, whether the company wanted to give it to them or not. They were in contact with the users of the products and services they coveted or had at least a passing interest in. They understood that they knew the products and services better than the company that produced them -- after their peers were the ones who bought the goods/services to actually use them, not just make them. They could easily find out the warts, the strengths, the gossip on the company. They understood that they, as customers, could change to another company with the click of a mouse as more and more of them began to use broadband (not dial up) connectivity so the experience moved more efficiently.

But their relationship to the company was one of extracting as much value as they could from the products and services in the way that gave them what they needed to meet their expectations of what that product provided. The company provided the services and the products, and the company created the experiences that the customers then paid for or at least recognized as "different" than another company that produced similar products and services.

But the vita passiva still dominated.

As the Gen-Xers began to take a more commanding role in the economic decision-making, so did their well-publicized characteristics, among them a more balanced life than their workaholic dads and moms. In the meantime, though, the baby boomer dads and moms were approaching 60 and thinking that maybe, just maybe, it was time to use some of that $2 trillion worth of global spending power they had and remember the principles that they used to be true to also. Meaning, change was a good thing and marketing wisdom that said their brand choices were locked in during their 40s were not particularly right.

Studies came out from Yankelovich and others that said baby boomers were perfectly willing to switch brands without qualms, as long as they saw the reason. In fact, two-thirds of them said that. So, Gen X and baby boomers began using their technology savvy to do a lot of their activities online. But then along came Gen Y with MySpace and Gen X and baby boomers with LinkedIn and everyone had Google and Yahoo on the technology side. Broadband internet use skyrocketed in most countries, so latency wasn't a big issue anymore. People could go online and find things to do that were in real time or near real time.

Online life became part of actual real life; it wasn't a fantasy for geeks only and hackers on the darkside. Technology architectures like service-oriented architectures, which tied business behaviors directly to web services, became a prevalent desire if not available everywhere initially. The web became a feature of life. Cellphones, because of improved technologies and new ideas on how to use them on the go, became integrated into the fabric of urban existence primarily as the cellular infrastructure and 3G networks constantly improved and grew.

In the meantime, the realization that there was a way of connecting with others that could be more meaningful than just information gathering became apparent -- especially with the phenomenal growth of blogs and the blogosphere. With blogs came impact and it was a social and political impact on the lives of countless others. The blog was not just a tool for individual expression but was a tool for social power also -- recognized and validated as such by the mainstream it needed so that the recognition could be bridged between the generations that got it and those that just read about it. "It" being the power of the citizen or consumer to express their thinking in some meaningful and valuable way. Social customer. Social being.

Blogs skyrocketed from 6,000,000 tracked by Technorati in June 2005 to 37,000,000 in March 2006.

Think I'm blowin' smoke? Paul Gillin, one of the smartest commentators on marketing in the business,in a column in BtoB magazine, called "Welcoming your critics online," praised both Microsoft and GM for opening up sites that customers and critics alike could participate in. Here's what GM said about their participation, which was built around its sponsorship of that Donald Trump nightmare masquerade called the Apprentice and some of the negative results that were posted to the site:

GM didn't remove any of the negative ads and it has declared the campaign a success. 'Early on, we made the decision that...we would be summarily destroyed in the blogosphere if we censored the ads based on their viewpoint,' wrote Ed Peper, general manager in a post on GM's corporate blog.

All these were features of a new empowerment of the customer from someone who had gobs of information at their fingertips almost instantly available so that they could make an informed decision to a social customer who had the ability to affect actual corporate activities (and government activities) and behaviors. The vita passiva idea of value -- accumulating information to extract individual value from a business's offerings and deriving some satisfaction with that experience -- changed to a vita activa version. That is the notion of the "active life" -- again, from the pen of Dante Alighieri.

Vita activa's variation is value that is created conjointly by the company and the customer, by the citizen and their government, so that each gets the results they need to have a successful co-created meaningful experience. What each defines as success might be quite different, but ultimately, its the partnership that produces the value with the customer as the center of that value.

The customer value chain

OK, so let me say this again, but another way: We are now entering the "era of the social customer." In this era, the company is part of the customer value chain. The enterprise value chain has been subsumed as a feature of this customer value chain. What makes this different from the customer ecosystem in its earlier stages represented in the diagram above is that during the earlier phases, a smoothly integrated value chain, one that was working seamlessly, one that tied the demand and supply chains of the brand holding enterprise with the demand and supply chains of the channel, was the optimal organization for providing value to the customer through meeting customer expectations. But value was still created by the company.

In this era of the social customer, value is centered in the customer, and the value chain's hub is organized around the customer, and that enterprise value chain is a feature of the customer value chain. It is the customer's business partner -- not the business' business partner.

That also means that the customer no longer is looking for value in the products qua products but only in how they can use the products to produce value for themselves. They collaborate with their business partners in the customer value chain to produce that value. The company moves from producer to producer and aggregator.

The proof is in the pudding; No eating of the pudding

Recent research from Dick Lee and David Mangen, two of my CRM Guru pals, is in their new report, "Customers Say What Companies Don't Want to Hear." While I don't intend to do an exhaustive review here, one of the points in their fascinating findings is that they found that customers are beginning to shift power in the buyer-seller relationship to the buyer.

Denis Pombriant, in his recent work, finds that the sales process is being replaced by a purchase process, which of course, is another way of saying something similar. Martha Rogers and Don Peppers in their shareholder-focused important work, "Return on Customer," say the same thing in a different way. So does Jeff Tanner in his excellent course on "Customer Value Analysis" that he teaches with BPT Partners.

The buyer is where the value now sits. Value no longer resides in the services and products (especially $355,000 worth of value), or even the company, but in the customers themselves. These particular customers, which is the millions of Gen-Xers and the savvy baby boomers, and the "self-actualizing" Gen-Yers in the workforce, know that.

And now hopefully you're beginning to know it, too.

The sum of vita activa

Amazing that all this discussion started with that lame attempt to meld microcarbon with microfiber. I have to tell you that this is my first round on this idea of the "era of the social customer." You're hearing it first here and I'd love to get feedback.

I'm a little tenuous yet, not entirely fleshed out by a long shot and certainly not sure of all that I'm thinking. Please treat this blog entry as thinking out loud. I'm in the midst of significant research including interviewing companies who get the idea and some who don't. I'm talking to industry executives in CRM, because the implications around this are hefty. I'm not claiming to be the pioneer here -- though some of this is probably original. I haven't read enough secondary sources to know yet. But I'm onto something, I think. Actually, I know that you know in your heart of hearts that this what you're seeing. Isn't it?

Let me know. Let's have a conversation -- however long you want to have it for.

There you have it. Tell me if I'm crazy or just being nostalgic. But is this true or not still?

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