Chikashi Miyamoto

philosopher by training, gentleman by accident, pervert by nature, glutton by choice

Category: business

Campagnolo Spoken Here, But I Will Need to Speak Shimano

THE enduring question in road cycling is “Campagnolo or Shimano?” More recently, I think it has evolved to “Campagnolo, Shimano or Sram?” It’s a partisan issue. Therefore, one cannot have a sensible debate.

It’s a bit like “completely shaved, landing strip / trimmed triangle or bottomless bush?” It’s not a debate to be won.

Ever since I saw a pair of Skyway’s Graphite Tuff Wheels with golden Campag hubs (with something that sounded a bit voodoo: sealed bearings) almost 4 decades ago when I was racing BMX, I have been a card-carrying Campagnolo Party member. Life was very simple in this regard.

If I were to choose between Campagnolo and Shimano by relying solely on the left side of my brain, then I know that it would be Shimano almost every time. However, the right side wields considerable influence. It is probably fair to say that Shimano’s mechanical performance is superior to that of Campagnolo’s in almost every way. However, one aspect of Shimano that leaves me completely cold is the heavy-handed design, not so much the shortage of lore and myth associated with their name. In other words, aesthetics.

To be fair, Shimano’s design language is probably “on point”, judging from sports car designs coming out of Italy in recent years. Whilst I am tempted to think that Italian industrial design took a wrong turn, got lost in the wilderness and entered the dark ages, Campagnolo’s designs represent hope in my eyes. Who else can make a rear derailleur look sexy? The Super Record rear derailleur is nothing short of delicious.

However, I have concluded that my continued membership in the Party is untenable.

Over the years, Campagnolo have chosen to be selective with their product assortment after a few unsuccessful forays into mountain bike components and other diversification attempts. As a small company, their resources are comparatively limited, so the strategic decision to remain narrowly focussed may have been forced upon them if independence remained an over-riding priority.

One might not think that in a low-tech category like bicycles, such choices would matter. However, I have come to the conclusion that such strategic choices do matter.

We have seen a couple of developments in the world of road bike components. One is the electronic transmission, and another is the hydraulic disc brake. Both require proper R&D, which in turn requires money. One can make small, incremental progress over a longer period, or one can try to go from zero to sixty in a much shorter period, which requires a much more significant capital outlay within a shorter period of time if one is to be successful. And, even more money is required to keep ahead of the competitors.

If you are in the business of group sets, you need money to stay ahead, even relevant. It now seems abundantly evident that diversified, successful experience is a competitive advantage. Campagnolo have neither.

Campagnolo, once the leading innovator in the field, now seem rather quaint.

Putting aside people’s varying preferences in how an electronic drive train should function, I think it’s safe to say that, in the general sense, Shimano and Sram are way ahead of Campagnolo. Catching up, getting ahead and staying ahead of their larger rivals will require money.

And, Campag do not have the benefit of diverse experience that the others do. One can always buy experience by going on a hiring spree, but that costs money, again… Take for instance, Shimano’s new Dura-Ace Di2 group set coming out this year. The new rear derailleur design comes straight out of their MTB experience in designing a rear derailleur that tucks under the chain stay in order to make it less susceptible to damage in case of a crash. Also from their MTB experience is the new synchronised shifting feature that automatically avoids sub-optimal gear combinations. Clever stuff.

Sram’s Etap is a good example of what Americans call out-of-the-box thinking. The wireless shifting enabled them to take a leaf out of the paddle shifters used in motor sports and better sports cars. It is arguably a lot more intuitive mechanism than anything else that’s available in cycling today. Sure, you’ll need to unlearn some shifting habits, but that does not take anything away from the fact that it is a more intuitive system. If Steve Jobs designed the way bicycle drive trains works, then this would be it.

The good old bicycle isn’t so low tech any more. And Campagnolo are having to play catch-up.

One glaring setback suffered by Campagnolo is their utter lack of expertise and experience in disc brakes resulting from their absence in the mountain bike segment. Sram had a hiccup when they first introduced their hydraulic version for road bikes, but it was nothing more than a hiccup after having accumulated significant experience in the off-road segments. In contrast, Campagnolo had to resort to partnering with a third party to develop their first disc brake group set.

And, we’re still waiting.

In the meantime, Shimano’s hydraulic disc brakes have become the standard by which everyone else’s disc brakes are judged.

When Campagnolo finally come out with a disc brake group set, I do not want to be a guinea pig for Version 1.

I always thought that disc brakes on a road bike are ugly. However, my priorities completely changed one day a few years ago in the French Alps. Descending in biblical conditions, the limitations of rim brakes became rather frightfully obvious. Disc brakes still hurt my eyes, but I want them.

As Shimano have gained market share at the expense of other companies, most notably Campagnolo, it has become increasingly difficult to find bike shops that have the experience and stocked with spare parts and specialist tools to service Campagnolo parts. I usually don’t go abroad with my bike more than twice a year, but whenever I do, I worry about not being able to get help in a timely and expert manner if I need it. Essentially, Campagnolo (and Sram) are exotics in today’s world. It’s hard enough to find a shop that knows how to deal with Campagnolo’s little peculiarities; forget about finding someone in the middle of nowhere who knows how to deal with EPS problems.

It feels more unnatural than painful, but my conclusion is that I need to learn to speak Shimano.

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A Perennial Challenge in Retail, Part 2

In the 1970s, a woman and her partner opened a Louis Vuitton Malletier franchise boutique in Munich and introduced the brand to Germany when LV was still owned and managed by the Vuitton family. Unsurprisingly, she still has several LV pieces from the 70s, one of which is a well-used Keepall bag.

Several years ago in the south of France, decades after her affiliation with LV had become a distant memory, she visited a Louis Vuitton boutique, owned and operated by LV, now a subsidiary of LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton, to have a repair job done on the Keepall.

After listening to her requirement, the LV sales associate took a quick glance at the bag and pronounced that it is fake.

Priceless.

Now, imagine if that sales associate told the same thing to someone who doesn’t really know the origin of the bag because it was a present from a thoughtful and generous person, or, so awkward to mention in this age of throwaway culture, it was handed down from a previous generation.

What can one say after receiving a divine revelation like that? My experience at Bottega Veneta in Paris was, I must say, a lot more subtle, if that’s the appropriate word.

With 1 1/2 times as many shops as Ikea, it’s no small undertaking for LV to train and manage all the front-of-house staff in all those retail locations. And, by training, I don’t mean just product knowledge but also conduct.

I know, it’s hard.

What bemuses me is the current trend (more like a mad rush) amongst product brands to have an army of ‘brand ambassadors’. They hand out products to these ‘ambassadors’ so that they can be seen in the wild and on social media using their products. The tactic itself has been used for ages, even before the advent of the Internet, but the practice of giving these people a formal designation is, I believe, a more recent phenomenon.

Some are famous people. Some are ordinary people.

With due respect to these people and without undermining the contribution that some are making in increasing awareness of the respective brands, none are ambassadors of the brand.

The real ambassadors, or rather, the people who should be the real ambassadors, are the brand’s members of staff, particularly those that come in direct contact with existing and potential end users and influence how they form a view about their relationship with the brand. That is not a revolutionary or innovative concept. Rather, it’s a very old one that has not lost one bit of its relevance.

However, it can be difficult to remember the important things when there is so much focus on gimmicks, buzz words, page views and likes.

Or, call me a dinosaur.

Business Drivel, part 16

We’ve seen many key personnel changes at fashion labels, namely, in the creative director role. There have been many ‘departures’ and replacements, as well as the creative director role effectively being eliminated altogether in rare cases. In other words, the fashion industry has been keeping headhunters quite busy.

A principal of a niche headhunting firm was interviewed by a US broadsheet about the recent turnover in creative directors and said: ‘There is a hunger and a desire within our industry to be relevant, always to the next generation and the next generation… If I were to point to any trends, it would be to achieve that relevance without losing the DNA.’

Was that a damning assessment of how the fashion industry has been operating and hiring in the past? Achieving relevance without losing the DNA is a new trend?

Or, was that a damning assessment of consumers, previously having bought piles of stuff that’s not relevant to them?

Or, was that a case of verbal diarrhoea?

Killing Me with Charm, or Just Inattentive?

Castelli Pocket Liner Jacket

In a post about riding in the rain, I touched on rain jackets.

The photo I took of my Castelli Pocket Liner in the late afternoon sun is a flattering shot, cf., above.

However, what I said about the jacket and the fabric supplier eVent was not at all flattering.

Therefore, the last thing I expected was for Castelli and eVent to fave my tweet about the blog or for eVent to even retweet my said tweet. My guess is that they saw the photos but didn’t bother reading the text. But who knows…

I’m not sure if I ought to be amused or bemused.

China, the Chinese Buyers and Luxury Goods

There was a time when it was almost impossible to avoid being confronted by this question at least once a day: what are your plans in China? And then, the market started cooling off, and companies stopped opening new shops like fast food chains, in towns you never knew existed, in some remote areas in mainland China. More recently, international ‘luxury’ brands whose core business is chasing the mass affluent segment started shuttering some of those locations because there is just not enough business to be had in some industrial or agricultural outpost. Even very large domestic retailers have started to feel the demand slowing, with their share prices taking a beating as both Hong Kong and mainland China markets continue to soften.

I really don’t know if the merchants’ previous exuberance was ever justified simply because I don’t know if much of the market data and economic indicators coming out of China were reliable. Chuck Prince, a former CEO of Citigroup, said in 2007, just prior to the unravelling of the US subprime mortgage market, ‘When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated. But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.’ The official market data published by the Chinese government was the music, and everyone was too keen to be on the dance floor although I suspect that anyone with any sense suspected, even at the time, that the music might be from the Milli Vanilli’s Greatest Hits album. They said, 8% annual GDP growth, AGAIN. Sure, why not.

Chinese buyers are still out in force, just not at home. You see them everywhere, buying. They are still a very important group of buyers. A recent analysis by a Shanghai-based consultancy, Fortune Character Institute (I love that name, and incidentally, I still don’t understand why the Korean conglomerate, Lucky Goldstar, changed their name to LG Corporation since nothing says ‘Asian Tiger’ like a fortuitous name) reckons that 78% of the luxury goods purchases by Chinese consumers will be made abroad and that only 10% of global sales will be generated in China. It is important to note that they have defined luxury goods to include jewellery, watches, accessories and apparel, but to exclude cars, yachts, aeroplanes or art. I don’t know how they arrived at those numbers, but they sound like reasonable projections for the next year or two.

As such, thoughts should probably focus on the buyers, not their country of residence. Perhaps easier said than done…

How to Do a Quick Litmus Test for Business Strategy

Many articles on business have me hearing the author fap, fap, fap to the sound of his own words. I know, it’s not nice to say. Not professional, you say. Guilty as charged. Admit it, you, as a business practitioner, have felt the same way from time to time. And then, every once in a while, you come across an article by an academic that actually reflects what they teach at every b-school: write with brevity and clarity. And to boot, the thesis of the article is practical, even universally practical.

Professor Roger L Martin of Rotman (U of T) posits that the first question to ask of any core strategy choice is if one could make the opposite choice without looking stupid. Simple, lucid, and eminently practical in coming up with a strategy that is not identical to what everyone else is doing (but might sound nicer). As I do not have permission to reproduce the article here, read it at the source. It’s well worth your while, it’s a quick read, and you can use his idea immediately.

Reputation Management in a Click

white pride world wide

 

Recent events and certain political campaign rhetorics reminded me of something by which I was bemused a couple of years ago. It’s still a bit of a mystery to me.

Earlier that year, I engaged a public relations consultant to give a couple of my non-marketing colleagues some media training. Whilst he was previously the regional head of a global, generalist PR agency, his private practice focusses on issues and reputation management. As he and I both cycle, when an intellectual property spat between a small Canadian bicycle retailer and a large American bicycle brand erupted, I sent him a link to an online article about it because I thought it would be interesting to see how the Americans will handle the situation. Legally, it was a fairly clear-cut case. Actually, it wasn’t even worth discussing. However, on the public relations front, the case called for a comfortable chair and a large tub of popcorns as it unfolded in the court of public opinion. It was a textbook case of both sides doing everything wrong: the ignorant, naïve, self-righteous shopkeeper and the big, bad, arrogant corporation. What made the case more interesting is the fact that a bike brand that is very adept at marketing was cocking it up like amateurs. Over the years, the purveyors of bikes mass produced in Taiwan have managed to develop and nurture, with the use of a very clever tag line, a very loyal clientele by making them feel like a rare breed of cyclists despite, in reality, rendering each customer merely One Of Countless Many. And here they were, making a mess out of a situation that could have been avoided in the first place.

In reply, the consultant told me about a case that a large British general merchandiser had experienced about 4 years prior when just about every business was feeling the impact of the Great Recession. They are known for value-for-money product assortment and have long enjoyed a reputation for supplying quality underwear at reasonable prices. They tweaked the pricing structure of women’s undergarments (big booby surcharge on DD cup and larger), and the members of public were outraged by that move, with the media egging them on whilst rivals gained market share. Under pressure, the retailer retracted the change. In doing so, they made a brilliant move in launching an advertising campaign to apologise for the offending move. The advert featured a model with her E cup assets encased in a pair of their previously premium category bras. The public was so taken by the model (and presumably the campaign message as well) that everyone forgot about the retailer’s offence and took their custom back to the retailer.

I knew about the outrage but didn’t know about the apology campaign since I didn’t follow the saga back then. Because he didn’t tell me who the model was (and obviously, I wanted to know), so I asked him who she was. What happened next had me perplexed.

He sent me a link to a thread in a well known internet forum founded and managed by a former Ku Klax Klan Grand Wizard, for white nationalists, white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The forum has sub-fora in various languages for members around the globe. In the thread, UK-based forum members were chatting about the model, and some members had posted a photo or two of her. Her photos explained why the campaign was a hit, but I simultaneously entered Bemusement Park quite unexpectedly.

Bemusement 1: These forum members were saying positive things in a polite manner about a British subject of Sudanese extraction. To say that the thread content was incongruent with the forum profile is perhaps an understatement. I wonder if the reputation of the thread participants amongst their peers suffered as a result.

Bemusement 2 (more important): Of all the places on the internet where photos of her can be found, the consultant sent me a link to a thread in that forum. If you do a web search on her name, the thread is unlikely to come up in the first few pages, not least because certain search engines in certain countries have excluded the forum’s URL from their index. In other words, you don’t come across the thread by accident if you enter her name in a search engine. You have to be in the forum first in order to find that thread, that is, unless someone sends you a direct link to it. So, is he a forum member?

I never asked albeit I still wonder whether it’s something that might hurt his reputation.

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