Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Happy 100th, A. J. Hastings!

Anyone remember small-town stationery stores? Amherst, Mass., has one that's alive, well, and celebrating 100 years. I shop at A. J. Hastings every time I visit Amherst, a home away from home, and my recent trip happily coincided with Hastings' centennial. The store is actually older, but the Hastings family bought it in 1914 and has run it since then--it's a third-generation family business.

The store's celebration included home-baked chocolate cake, display cases with artifacts, streamers across the windows, and a guest book to sign -- proof that it doesn't take much money to commemorate an important business anniversary. 

A. J. Hastings (which is not to be confused with our dear old client A. W. Hastings in Enfield, CT) sells merchandise for UMass, Amherst College and other five-towns institutions, art supplies, fun things for kids, and greeting cards in addition to office supplies. You have to love a store that has a section of sympathy cards for the loss of pets. 

Also, the map section is superb. I found a New York City subway map here that I couldn't find in Manhattan because we have no independent bookstores with maps anymore. A friend in Amherst told me that just before leaving for a trip to Russia, he found a map of Russia in stock, right in his hometown store ... and it was in Russian, which is what he wanted.

The Pioneer Valley has a Staples, sure, but Hastings is the real thing. It aptly calls itself "a small store with big ideals." That's good company storytelling.

Believe it or not, Amherst still has a typewriter store as well...but that's a story for another day. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Horizon Lines: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

In 1956, Malcolm McLean launched the first containerized shipping service, revolutionizing the ocean cargo industry. His Sea-Land Service was acquired by CSX Corporation in 1986, and went public in 2005 under the name Horizon Lines. Horizon, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, accounts for a third of all U.S. container shipments to Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, which in accordance with the Jones Act must be made on U.S.-built, owned, and flagged vessels operated by predominantly U.S.-citizen crews. Horizon Lines owns 13 such container ships and approximately 31,000 cargo containers. The main About Us page is here.


Products/Services: A
The main About Us page, Our Mission, History, and Values, is extremely well done. After a summary of the company’s function, it moves on (under “History”) to describe its founder’s role in developing containerized shipping and the company’s expansion. As lovers of language (including puns), we can’t help but smile at the final section, on the company’s values: “Seven C’s.” Pictures of the founder and of several huge container ships liven up the page. Headings and short paragraphs break up the text, which is nicely written and to the point.

Personality: A plus
The Who We Are page has tabs for Customer Service, Sales, and Operations. Each tab focuses on a different employee, telling what the employee does, why he or she is passionate about his or her job, and how he or she interacts with the public. As we write this, the profiles are of the Service Delivery manager in San Juan, the Senior Account Manager for the Central Region, and the Export Cargo Services Supervisor in Oakland. We can barely imagine what such jobs involve, yet we were fascinated to read about the employees who hold them.

We have never seen employee profiles written this well—profiles that so effectively convey personality in a very job-oriented way. Our Commandment 3 of About Us pages is, “Reveal they personality.” Horizon Lines does that exceptionally well.

Accessibility: A
Horizon Lines has a Contact page with the standard online form, phone, and mailing address. But it also provides a long list of actual names for the people in charge of specific terminals, with their mailing address, telephone, and email. It makes us feel that all those diligent, enthusiastic people at Horizon Lines would indeed love to hear from us. Well done again!

Great corporate history, great images, great employee profiles and easy accessibility make for a great set of About Us pages.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Antwerp's Pop-Up Bank

Mainstream banking is like mainstream theater in a way -- the demographic is getting older. How to appeal to younger customers? PNB Paribas takes a novel approach with its Hello bank! subsidiary, self-described as "the first 100% digital mobile bank in Europe." Business history is full of interesting firsts. I visited the pop-up in Antwerp, Belgium, on the city's busiest shopping promenade. The signage grabbed me from across the street. No tellers. No platforms. Instead: Co-working space, 3D printing, cheap coffee, smartphone repair, free e-newspapers, and free wi-fi. Interesting that the digital strategy includes physical spaces--after all, we still live in the physical world. president
Marian Calabro in the
Renault Twizy at Antwerp's
Hello bank!

Founded in 2013, Hello bank! claims to have 177,000 clients. Putting PNB Paribas's other woes aside, this seems like an effective way to extend a banking brand. Oh, and this particular branch had a Renault Twizy, a one-seat car. You couldn't drive it away, but you could sit in it, as I did. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Coach: “About Us” Evaluation by Corporate

Coach was founded as a family-run workshop in a Manhattan loft in 1941, and its handbags quickly established a cult following for their quality, function, durability, and classic style. After a brief stint as part of Sara Lee, Coach became in 2000 a publicly traded company. Coach now has almost 800 stand-alone stores in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, with sales of over $5 billion in 2013 and more than 17,000 employees. Its global headquarters are still in the loft on West 34th Street. The main About Us page (“Company Profile”) is here.

The retail side of the Coach site is attractively laid out and works beautifully on mobile devices. The pages describing the company’s business history ... not so much. Company Profile and its subpages (reached via “About Us / Company Info” in the footer of the Home page) appear as tiny text in boxes with scroll bars in a sea of vast white spaces. Viewed on a desktop, this is annoying. On a phone, trying to access the page kicks up the message, “Sorry for the inconvenience. This page cannot be viewed in a mobile format.” The About Us pages are also inconsistent: sometimes they offer the option to print or share on social media; sometimes not. Time for a major overhaul!

Products/Services: D
Our Commandment 6 of About Us pages is, “Honor thy visuals.” For decades, women around the world who appreciate quality and style have been lusting after Coach products. The scant illustrations on the About Us pages do little to remind us of that, or show what makes Coach accessories worldwide bestsellers. Why not fill that vast white space around the text with images? Yes, the sales pages are for selling; but the About Us pages shouldn’t be an imageless wasteland. Potential investors (at whom these pages are apparently aimed) should also be reminded of what makes the brand special.

Any fashion brand approaching a 75-year business anniversary has cause to celebrate, but Coach’s About Us pages are lamentably short on company history. The Company Profile page mentions the founding of the company in 1941. The bio of Executive Chairman Lew Frankfort mentions major events since he joined Coach in 1979. The FAQ gives a few details on Coach’s expansion. Think of the opportunities for defining the brand if there were a page of company history with a narrative or timeline illustrated by vintage ads! (Particularly since collectors still search for vintage Coach bags.)

Personality: A
Coach offers only four bios of management – but the first two, of Executive Chairman Lew Frankfort and CEO Victor Luis, are among the best corporate bios we’ve seen. Each is a narrative emphasizing their careers with the company and how they have been and are changing its direction. Unlike most corporate bios (including those of Coach’s CFO and Global HR Officer), these bios could not be cut and pasted directly to some other company’s management pages.

Accessibility: C
The Contact Us page accessible through the Company Profile page is a rudimentary (and quite ugly!) online form geared to investors. We suggest a link at the top of the Contact Us page for wayward customers, and a link on the retail Contact page for potential investors.

It’s better to wear your laurels proudly than to rest on them. The About Us pages should flaunt your achievements, with narrative and illustrations.

Does your Web site’s “About Us” section accurately convey your organization’s history and capabilities? Every two weeks we evaluate one example, grading it in three areas that are key to potential customers: Personality (Who are you?), Products/Services (What can you do for us?), and Accessibility (How can we reach you?). To talk about your About Us page, contact us!
Today’s example was chosen at random; has no ties to this company.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Museum Like None Other president Marian Calabro at Antwerp's
Plantin-Moretus Museum. This room contains the world's
oldest printing presses, dating from around 1600.

The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, ranks as perhaps the supreme museumgoing experience of my life. Surely it's in the top 5. What a gem! A Unesco World Heritage Site, this 34-room edifice was the home and business of a publishing family from the 1500s to the late 1800s. Words can’t do justice to the wealth of company history displayed and archived within these walls.
Here's how canny the Plantins and Moretuses were as businesspeople: they published the list of books deemed "forbidden to read" by the Catholic Church, and they also published a number of the actual books. After all, if the books didn't exist, how could the Church outlaw them? They also published the world's first multilingual Bible and compiled the first Dutch language dictionary. Medical students throughout Europe learned to care for the ill and do surgery by studying the anatomical engravings in Plantin textbooks.

Labore et Constantia was the firm's motto.
Flash photography is not allowed (rightly so), so I burned out my camera battery as I tried to grab visual memories. I marveled to see the thumbnail sketch of a title page, then a fuller sketch, then the copperplate engraving (remember, everything has to be engraved backwards), then the press proof, and finally the title page in the actual book--all in one display case. (Two of these photos appear below.) Labore et Constantia -- work and constancy -- was the Plantin motto.

I particularly enjoyed the intact Proofreader's Room. The audio tour noted that "correctors," as proofreaders were called, were the company's most intellectual employees: they had to have a thorough command of up to nine languages and be conversant with the commerce and culture of the day. "Productive in practically every field of knowledge, the Officina Plantinana was responsible for the global dissemination of the newest discoveries in the areas in the areas of the developing sciences, the new vision of man that the entry of humanism afforded, and the diffusion of new artistic trends, then only possible through the medium of the printed--and preferably illustrated--book," as the Visitors' Guide says. The English version of the audio tour, done in British English, offers a wealth of corporate storytelling.

This short report barely scratches the surface. I'm ready to return to Antwerp just to spend another day here. Watch for more corporate storytelling from Belgium in upcoming weeks.