• About Tom Dougherty

    Tom Dougherty CEO, Stealing Share

    Tom Dougherty is the President and CEO of Stealing Share, Inc., and has helped national and global brands such as Lexus, IKEA and Tide steal market share over his 25-year career.

    An often-quoted source on business and brands, he has been featured recently by the New York Times and CNN, discussing topics ranging from television to Apple to airlines.

    Tom also regularly speaks at conferences as a keynote and break-out speaker. To find out more on inviting him to your speaking engagement and view a video of him speaking, click here.

    You can also reach him via email attomd@stealingshare.com.

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The Tom Dougherty Blog

The wonderful smell of Play-Doh

When it comes to Play-Doh, my two and a half year-old granddaughter is a raging lunatic.


She asks my son and daughter-in-law to “Play Play-Doh with me!” all the time – even when she wakes up in the middle of the night. Play-Doh is always top of mind, even when my son would rather it not be.

Kids love it and they will remember the smell - forever.
Kids love it and they will remember the smell – forever.

Needless to say, these innocent demands don’t let up when she has a sleepover at her Mimi and Pop-Pop’s house. Which, when she asks to play Play-Doh, we give into her. She even asks to watch Play-Doh tutorials on YouTube. Yes, such things exist.

My little goofball granddaughter is the apple of my eye, but Play-Doh reminds me that smell – yes, even the smell of Play-Doh – can be a brand equity.

Smell can be an important part of a brand. 

That’s right. Smell.

Do you remember the smell of Play Doh?

If you’re anything like me, the odor of it is impregnated in your mind. It was still nestled there right before I first agreed to play Play-Doh with my granddaughter.

What does that smell remind you of?

I am brought back to the enthusiastic feeling of opening a new can where I can see the slight ridges of fresh Doh. I am filled with the urge to press it between my hands and to smell it.

The smell of is one of innocence, creativity, excitement and joy.

Play-Doh’s brand owns this smell.

It’s a strange thing to consider, but it’s true.

We’ve written a lot about brand positioning. Brand positioning is about reflecting who your customers are when they use your brand. Smell, just like the other senses, can help to define this experience for customers.

The smell of Play-Doh did for me, just as it will forever with my granddaughter.

American Apparel bankruptcy predictable

I suppose you could say that just about any industry is brutal for the players involved. The restaurant business, for example, is extremely tough to break into, as the rate of success for a new restaurant is extremely low.

Another industry that comes to mind is the retail industry, especially in apparel. Much of the blame falls on the retailers themselves as many of them have failed to adapt to changing consumer patterns, stubbornly holding on to old business models and brand meaning.

The customers are walking away.
The customers are walking away.

With that in mind, it comes as no surprise that American Apparel will file for bankruptcy today, coming off declining sales numbers that have put the retailer’s existence in jeopardy. It lost $134 million in just the last three months, a fourth straight quarterly drop.

The American Apparel bankruptcy is not a surprise because, even though American Apparel has suffered some bad PR recently with its now-fired founder being shown the door after allegations of inappropriate behavior, American Apparel just doesn’t mean anything within the retail space.

Bankruptcy will be coming to other retailers.

This is a common problem with retailers as their meanings simply blend from one into another. Instinctively, few of us understand the difference between, for example, American Apparel and H&M. You could go down the list of retailers and come up with the same equation: As brands, the meaning just comes down to hip clothes for hip youth. Where’s the differentiation in that?

Recently, Stealing Share did a study of the retail apparel market and much of what I’ve written here is further explained in it. We concluded that retailers must own something that its competition does not. And few do.

The American Apparel bankruptcy is just the start. More and more retailers, especially those in retail who depend on shoppers coming to the mall, will find themselves facing bankruptcy and wondering why their sales are dropping.

Retailers need to own something that actually gets shoppers to choose them, rather than just clicking on Amazon. Which is what they are doing right now.

Airlines need culture change

I have not blogged on airlines in quite a while and I thought it was appropriate to look at the category again in light of the new CEO for United Airlines (Read a market study on the entire category here) and my thinking that airlines need culture change.

Airlines need culture change
United’s former Sleezball

Funny thing, United is getting criticism for not looking within the industry when it appointed Oscar Munoz as its new CEO. It seems that United has trailed all of the major carriers in terms of customer satisfaction in the past few years and this is being blamed on the fact that former CEO, Jeff Smisek, who resigned last month because he was a sleezball, was not from inside the industry either. Come on. Give me a break.

Airlines need culture change
New United CEO Oscar Munoz

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am what United has designated as being Global Services. This is their highest status in their frequent flyer pantheon. For those that do not know all the benefits I am privy to because of this status, it means that I get to board the aircraft right after the lame and the infirmed and then have the privilege of being crammed into a tiny seat for longer than almost all other flyers. In the common event that the flight is delayed, I get to sit in my confined space a few minutes longer than others. Sounds good doesn’t it?

Airlines need culture change. Especially UnitedUnited has continued to disappoint me. It doesn’t even recognize that, in an industry of mediocrity, that all airlines needs culture change. The flights are so delayed that I have taken to flying out of my local airport first thing in the morning even if my connecting flight leaves late in the afternoon. All too often, subsequent flights out of Greensboro are later and later as the delay in takeoff is compounded by all the other late flights that my aircraft suffers before arriving to GSO (Triad International Airport, named so despite the fact that no international flights begin or end there). These delays are getting all the more common as airlines (not just United) push these planes to the breaking point by flying tight schedules designed to eek out every penny of profit from the over-worked commuter flights that feed their infamous hubs.

Airlines need culture change not more of the same

I recognize that all I do is complain about airlines. Some of you may say that I need to move to a city that has direct flights and does not rely on connecting flights as a requisite to get anywhere. I have to admit. I have entertained this idea at times. But such a change in domicile is not without costs. By COSTS I mean the flights that fly direct are WAY MORE EXPENSIVE. It is actually cheaper, much cheaper, for me to fly from Greensboro to Washington Dulles and then connect to a flight to Geneva then it is for me to fly direct from DC to Geneva without the connection. Crazy.

The problem with airlines is the airline insider.  Think about the way those in the industry measure customer satisfaction. The percentage of on-time flights, comfort in the seats and whether the airline gives you a 5-cent bag of pretzels and 4oz of a soft drink or water. They also offer coffee but I don’t seem to be able to recognize the taste as any version of coffee. Think about it. They measure customer satisfaction by standards that should denote the lowest common denominator of any airline.

Its could give a lesson or two on culture change and Airlines need culture change.I think the industry only has hope by looking to an outsider to change direction and recognize that, while they may be in the transportation business, the airlines are equally in the hospitality business. Is Oscar Munoz the answer? I don’t know. If he fails to change the entire paradigm, I would suggest that they appoint a new COO who understands the logistics of the industry and then hire a senior leader from Ritz Carleton as its next CEO.

How might culture change when leadership decided that customer satisfaction was more than being on-time? Ritz is not just a hotel brand. It has actively positioned itself as different and better from its competition. It has made service personalized and actually makes you feel as though you are fortunate to have chosen that brand.

What ALL the airlines need is culture change and a recognition that we would like more than what we are getting. They could start to measure their preference not in terms of oversold flights because they have cut back on the schedule but rather how many more flights they would need to account for the increase in traffic. Even Southwest would begin to worry. Maybe standing in line for a seat is not that much fun. Is everything in the airline industry based upon discount fares and fewer fees? There may be a different path. Hopefully someone sees that. Airlines need culture change.

Sting’s TED Talk is a necessary listen

Yesterday, by happenstance, I opened my podcast app and decided to update my five podcast subscriptions.

I’m glad I did.

One of the podcasts I like to come back to from time to time is the Ted Talk Radio Hour, which is hosted by NPR (can you ever really go wrong with, NPR?).

This week’s podcast was a rebroadcast of a show that aired last October entitled, “The Source of Creativity.”

As is per usual, the show is broken into a handful of segments and rehashes key components of the TED Talk series. It’s definitely worth your time and attention.

His thoughts on creativity are profound.
His thoughts on creativity are profound.

The first segment was on the musician, Sting. I’ve always been a middle of the road fan of his solo work and a much greater fan of The Police. While that’s besides the point, it was that reason alone that I was curious enough to hear what he had to say about inception of creativity and how to overcome writer’s block.

We all struggle to come up with good ideas.

Sting gave powerful insight into an eight-year period of writer’s block. Prior, he was a hit machine, writing songs, which he admits, were solely about him and his experiences. It came to a point where he tapped out of things to say about his life experience from his vantage point.

He searched that entire time. Asking questions of his faith and of himself, “Have I said all that I am supposed to say?” This tormenting thought weighs heavy on any person of creativity.

Soon, he realized his vantage point needed to change. It was time for him to write about the people he knew, who he grew up with in Wallsend, from their perspective. Soon enough he was writing songs that took on dialects and were used as fodder for a Broadway play, The Last Ship.

Sting reminded me of what it means to be creative. 

When we create, we are taking a chance. We are placing our faith in an idea that doesn’t come from the mind, but from the gut. It takes practice to embrace those creative ideas and not overthink them and a willingness to ask hard questions of yourself, like Sting did. It’s that journey and self-reflection which, if we are willing to accept, can bring us to the ideas we are looking for.

It’s also a process from which you develop powerful brands. Stepping outside yourself and looking at things from an outsider’s perspective. That’s when you truly become creative and persuasive.

The pet industry and talking to our pets

For those of you who don’t believe that, as humans, we are always looking for meaning, I ask you this: Why do we talk to our pets? Do we expect them to answer? In a way, we do, even though such notion is ridiculous.

The primary reason that branding is so important in stealing market share is because, even when there is no meaning at all, we will instill meaning into that void.

Buying the premium food says more about us than our pets.
Buying the premium food says more about us than our pets.

It’s in that context that I bring up the pet industry, which is a $60 billion market – a shocking figure, especially when you consider that most of the things we buy for our pets (like, you know, clothes) are not needed by our pets.

In fact, just in the pet food arena, the growth market is among the premium foods, with 65% of dog owners and 55% of cat owners opting for the costlier food.

We are really buying ourselves.

Yes, we love our pets but there is something even more personal going on here, and has been for years. We’re not buying all those products – or shelling out hundreds of dollars for vet services – for the pets themselves. We’re doing it for ourselves. Little Fido could care less if he’s wearing a sweater when he goes outside. He wants to sniff and mark his territory.

Instead, we are inferring whatever meaning we can into our pets’ actions. When my dog, Teddy, is looking at me, I feel like he’s communicating something important and deep. What I glean from it comes from me, though, not Ted.

I bring this up because all brands must have meaning or your customers will infuse meaning into your brand. The danger with that is that the meaning could be negative or, more likely, have little impact because each consumer will inject a different meaning. When you mean so many different things to so many different people, you have little impact in the market and have no avenue to steal market share from your competition.

The pet industry has figured this out. That’s why they are increasing margins with high-priced, premium food even though I know Ted would just like a big steak, just like his dad. (Ahem. I mean, just like me.)

Taco Bell beer coming to Chicago

Taco Bell just opened its first Cantina concept in Chicago this week in which beer, wine, sangria and shots to go with its Twisted Freezes are served in addition to the traditional Taco Bell fare.

This looks right.
This looks right.

For a brand that gave the world the 4th Meal (that meal at 1 am after a night of drinking), this seems like a pretty solid fit for its brand. Much more than say, the biscuit taco.

From a business perspective, it is easy to see why Taco Bell beer has arrived, as alcohol is extremely profitable. From a brand perspective, Taco Bell beer works because, unlike some of its competitors that market the notion of family, Taco Bell has never done that. Rather it presents itself as edgy and young adult. (Hence the previously mentioned 4th Meal.)

Its brand gives Taco Bell permission to sell alcohol. The McDonald’s brand, for example, does not have permission to sell it. Subway doesn’t either.

How Taco Bell beer fits.

While I know that Taco Bell has seen success with its foray into the breakfast meal part, it always seemed a little off brand. Taco Bell is about the late night meal part, right? Adding alcohol seems to me to be right on the Taco Bell’s brand and actually fits better with its existing menu than most of its competitors. For a company that serves Doritos Locos Tacos and Nachos, beer seems to fit in quite nicely.

I doubt that this will be a widespread thing and certainly not available through the famous 1 am drive-thru line, but I think that this move further cements the young adult fast food brand that Taco Bell is trying to own and being fiercely single-minded is good for any brand.

Why is the VW recall a staggering crime?

When you buy a new car, logic and rational decision making are suspended.  Automobile manufacturers have understood for years that car buying is an emotional decision. Oh, I know we would all like to think that we use our noggins when we purchase a car but let’s face facts. Brand influences our choice.

All cars have tires, engines, roofs, boots (trunks in the US), steering wheels, seats doors and paint. They all are capable of taking us places and, unlike just about anything else we can think of, have actually become better than they were 25 years ago. They are built better and last longer.

We are invested in our cars. Even folks like myself , who claim not care to about the car they drive, have brand identification. Why do I drive a BMW when I claim I am unimpressed with automobiles? I don’t care if you drive a Chevrolet, BMW or a Toyota, we all like our new cars. When they get their first dent or scratch, it feels like it has happened to ourselves personally. In brand parlance, that is exactly what has happened.

The impact of the VW recall.

Recalls? They happen all the time. We expect the occasional mistake in design and forgive the Toyotas of the world for a few mishaps. None of us feel the personal pain beyond inconvenience of a product recall. Even unfixable design flaws can be forgiven. But what happens when a brand manipulates us through deliberate deceit? Well, the damage may well be permanent.

What impact will the VW recall have on its brand?
What impact will the VW recall have on its brand?

Volkswagen’s stock has taken a huge hit in the past week with the VW recall over faking emissions tests and a cynic might translate that into a buying opportunity. I don’t believe it is. I think we may be looking at free fall of a once great brand that has thrown itself on the rocks. The sin is personal and this is the most interesting part. Faking emissions does not damage us personally. It’s not as if you bought the car because of its track record in emissions. It does not threaten your immediate health that way defective breaks or uncontrolled acceleration does.

The VW recall tells us that folks who buy the brand are liars. I say this because car brands are an extension of our personal brands. The VW recall has given even the most died-in-the-wool VW aficionado reason to pause and contemplate the emotional cost of deliberate deceit.

Goodbye, Beetle. So long VW Bus. Nice knowing you Rabbit. See ya Jetta.

Apple botch with watch OS 2 looks bad

As I have made blatantly aware for years, I’m a freak for Apple. Part of my freakiness is that I wait the release of a new system update as eagerly as a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning.

OS9, which came out while I was away on a family trip to Ireland, did not elude my iPhone and iPad. I managed to stay up and install the program, even though it came late in the evening, with a few pints of Guinness in my system.

Like I said, I am a bit of a freak when it comes to this stuff and I hold no shame in admitting it.

The OS 2 update may be damaging.
The OS 2 update may be damaging.

That said, I am dissatisfied with Apple’s latest presentation of software. While I have yet to buy an Apple Watch, the delay in releasing the coveted Watch OS 2 interface due to a found bug in the system quite simply looks bad.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

Benjamin Franklin said that, and he is right.

Thoughts like: “Didn’t Apple already have enough time to find a bug in the watch OS 2 software?” and “Maybe the interface is just being rushed out to the masses” linger prominently in the back of my mind.

When you are at the top, you don’t have the room to fail and look less than great in public. Your brand will quickly take a shellacking. Ask Tiger Woods about that, Paula Deen or Mel Gibson. The pundits are always ready to cast a cold eye.

OS 2 Delay speaks loudly

And so, while the Watch OS 2 interface delay was nominal error, it does present a sense of ill-preparedness by Apple. And those precepts can quickly tarnish a brand’s reputation if mistakes like this continue. And while the release finally came yesterday to the public, that was several days too long.