End-of-year predictions are a win/win for wannabe clairvoyants and reporters. The former have the chance to preen as experts -- and of course, there will never, ever be any accountability as they're proved wrong. As for the latter, they get ready-made stories at a time of year when they'd rather be partying than working.
I find predictions largely useless; either they are blindingly obvious extensions of what we're seeing, or ludicrous exaggerations formulated for effect. So what I've gathered here are what I call "Observdictions": observations which could become predictive under the right circumstances. Specifically, I've detected six brands that -- with enlightened marketing leadership -- could do some healthy damage in 2013 and beyond. They range from services to consumables to hard goods to Internet startups. I've also provided some free and unsolicited advice for the months to come.
This company -- founded by Paul Pimsleur -- predates Rosetta Stone. But it has permitted that aggressive younger company to steal and colonize the valuable mindspace in the fast-growing learn-a-new-language category. Nonetheless, Pimsleur has advantages -- huge ones -- including a game-changing product difference: It works its magic by having you listen, not read. Unlike Rosetta, it's conversational approach, and it's built so you can learn a language on the go.
What a lost opportunity! If Pimsleur repositioned itself as the "mobile learning system," teaching you while you are in the car or on a train, it could become a lifestyle brand. And through that, it could de-position Rosetta as an impractical anchor that keeps you tethered to your computer.
But the Pimsleur website is muddy, messy and confused; it seems like the brand hasn't been touched in a decade. There's no competitive positioning. It's ready to be reinvented, if Simon & Schuster who owns it now, gave it some marketing love. Surely, someone there speaks the language of branding.
I had only vaguely heard about this classic American work boot brand until my son Lucas brought it to my attention. The fact that it's owned by Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway piqued my curiosity even further.
Chippewa has everything required for explosive success today; it steps briskly out of hipster and millennial central casting. Consider that they started taking care of dangerously exposed feet way back in 1901, in Chippewa Falls, Wis., making boots for loggers. During World War I and World War II they made boots for GIs, later for the Strategic Air Command and Convair test pilots. And at the same time, outdoorsmen fell in love with their technology and utter lack of footwear fussiness.
This is authenticity porn, needless to say. It's a romantic, mythic story. Their styles are resolutely non-styles, as is the dignified (and only marginally politically-incorrect) Indian logo. In the right hands -- and with a shred of Warren's money -- this brand could expand more broadly into outdoor wear -- shirts, jackets, rain gear -- open select retail locations and boutiques in department stores, and become the next L.L. Bean or Timberland.
The mournful keens heard when Twinkies shuffled off this mortal coil remind us that brands that laugh in the face of the nutritional police have an enormous audience if marketed properly. (Which Twinkies weren't). Hedonism isn't going anywhere. And retro brands with the ability to have self-aware fun with themselves can succeed.
Cheez Whiz was launched in 1953; it was one of many Eisenhower-era products that celebrated science's ability to make food as synthetic and detached from the source as possible. Kraft owns it now, as it did then, but it's afraid of that legacy. They are desperate to get behind the healthy-eating trend, so they have neglected - and are probably embarrassed by - this viscous, neon-colored treasure. (Public indicia of neglect? A 2004 copyright line on the website.)
But they're letting this opportunity atrophy. What would I do? Lean into the marketing, embrace the Whiz's inner (and outer) kitsch. Launch new flavors that combine high-and-low; who wouldn't love porcini or pesto-flavored Cheez Whiz? Reclaim the brand's rightful place as the original topping for the cheesesteak sandwich (this is true) and co-brand with Subway, who has a Big Philly Cheesesteak on the their menu (just like Dunkin' Donuts offering Quaker Oatmeal). Open a handful of Cheez Whiz restaurants in cool neighborhoods; hey, there's a resurgence of macaroni and cheese, and a bunch of restaurants that serve nothing but the stuff, including the cool Macbar which you can indulge in Mac Stroganoff and Margarita Mac.
Lastly, I'd be negligent if I didn't point out that Cheez Whiz is useful as a homemade stain remover. (I learned this from the WiseGeek website.) The fact that its "natural enzymes... have the power to break up organic greases and oils" just adds to its all-around wonderfulness. How about a Cheez Whiz stain-removing pen to compete with Tide? Who wouldn't want to carry that?
If I asked a thousand people whether they know they can convert their homes to solar, about a thousand would say yes. But if I asked them to name one company involved -- or who the leading solar company is -- I would wager a significant sum that fewer than 5 percent would have an answer. (I'd wager less than a significant sum that fewer than 20 percent could respond.)
It turns out that Sunrun is the leader in this space. I had never heard of them, to be honest. (It sounds like an Olympic event.) Sunrun's model is equally obscure. According to their website, it's possible to convert to solar for zero down, using "a special type of solar financing called a solar lease and a solar power purchase agreement."
Who knew? It's stunning that in a category as talked about as this -- with so many Whole-Foods-shopping-Prius-worshiping-compost-creating homeowners out there, that there is still no trusted, established brand in the solar power category.
Sunrun seems to be the logical company to grab this, and I don't quite know what's holding them back from turning a latent desire into a strong and compelling brand. Those rooftop panels and the associated Sunrun brand should be the ultimate signifiers of civic and neighborhood virtue. My guess is that it's less a question of margin structure and more a question of marketing imagination.
This is an early-stage startup, but I'm including it because I love the concept. They describe themselves as "factoring sourcing made easy" -- meaning that they connect people who need stuff manufactured, with factories (here in America) that make stuff. The "people," according to their site, can be large companies to "first time designers," but the orientation is clearly to the latter.
It's a perfect example of what VCs are loving these days -- platform plays that take the friction out of a clumsy, clunky system and, at the most fundamental level, connect buyers with sellers. If Maker's Row succeeds, they'll create a parallel universe to Etsy. On Etsy, people make their own products and find buyers. But there's also a market -- not as large in numbers of participants, but perhaps larger in potential aggregate revenue -- for connecting entrepreneurial vision with good, old-fashioned mass production. The idea of unleashing innovation by democratizing access to factories is very cool. It also brings much-needed business to U.S. manufacturing.
There's a good chance that Maker's Row, if executed and marketed properly, can work. With Kickstarter as a fundraising front-end, we now have a complete ecosystem for dreamers, visionaries and tinkerers to see their ideas through. While the long-term future may be 3-D printing, and it's sexy to watch someone print a prototype kidney at TED, there's something wildly exciting about connecting folk to factories.