Would you like a podcast with those fries?

August 21, 2019

While serial murders and sports seem to be trending among podcast audiences, other topics are slowly catching on. Among the latest “ear candy”: Phil in the Blanks by Dr. Phil, the TED Radio Hour, and Sasquatch Chronicles.

And did you catch The Sauce?

That three-episode “investigative podcast” was released last year by the media company Gizmodo and had somewhat lower stakes than the exoneration of a convicted murderer, according to a report by The New York Times.

With an eerie soundtrack meant to draw in the usual blood-and-guts devotees, the show examined the “mystery” of how McDonald’s underestimated demand for a popular Szechuan dipping sauce, a teriyaki-flavored concoction made famous by the Hulu animated show Rick & Morty—and unexpectedly enraged thousands of its customers.

At some of the chain’s locations, fights broke out as customers tussled over the scant supply of sauce packets. The twist? The hard-boiled investigator scrutinizing that sauce shortage was McDonald’s itself.

Indeed, the Times reports, The Sauce was a branded podcast that McDonald’s paid Gizmodo to produce as a tongue-in-cheek apology to disappointed customers.

While it’s no exposé, the podcast offers a popular example of how companies increasingly are using the tropes of popular podcasts in their own audio projects. These are not advertisements, exactly, says the news outlet, but subtle brand-building efforts intended to entertain as well as persuade.

And McDonald’s is far from the only business that is capitalizing on the trend.

]“You get to catch that busy person where you couldn’t normally get them,” Rob Walch, a vice president at Libsyn, a podcast distributor that works with companies developing branded content, told the news outlet. “They’re listening with earbuds, and you’re literally inside their head.”

By some estimates, there are now as many as 750,000 podcasts, so it’s not necessarily a surprise that major companies are creating their own. What’s more surprising is that consumers, conditioned to skip past commercials on YouTube and install ad blockers on their browsers, are actually listening to them. Within a day of its release last year, The Sauce broke into iTunes’ top-100 podcast chart, reaching No. 94.

Among them is Trader Joe’s, which offers a monthly podcast that is dedicated entirely to the inner workings of its stores. After the first episode last year, Inside Trader Joe’s ranked No. 5 on the iTunes chart.

The supermarket’s loyal following doesn’t seem to mind the self-promotion. “Inside Trader Joe’s” has almost a perfect five-star rating on iTunes.

One of the longest-running branded podcasts is an interview show called  Keeping You Organized which began in 2013. It’s produced by Smead, a company that manufactures manila folders.

Every week, the show’s host, the Smead marketing manager John Hunt, interviews a professional organizer about topics such as  how to efficiently dispose of the scraps left over from cutting coupons out of magazines. “It’s not that easy to talk about things like file folders,” Hunt told the Times. “But it is easier for us to talk about organizing.”

Research contact: @nytimes

Out-of-the-box thinking: There are 175 new mattress brands and too little differentiation

August 20, 2019

If someone had asked us several years ago whether we would be willing to buy a mattress in a box, without seeing it or even stretching out on it first, we would immediately have rejected such a crazy proposition. After all, the best way to buy a new mattress used to be visiting a showroom and sampling the goods.

However, Michael Magnuson, founder of mattress review site GoodBed.com told CNBC recently that there are now around 175 bed-in-a-box companies—and online mattress sales have become a successful and profitable sector of the home goods industry.

Online mattress companies that ship to your front door say that finding the perfect bed might just take a few clicks. But those same industry experts warn that it’s important to look beneath the sheets, the cable network news outlet notes. They say many mattresses being sold are actually very similar formulations—despite how they’re marketed. In fact, they often are manufactured by the same companies.

“The products that you’re buying—there are many similarities and only some minor differences,” Seth Basham, an analyst at Wedbush Securities who covers the mattress industry, told CNBC recently. He said that the core of the mattresses at different companies often use the same foam.  “The different layers— what goes on top of what—can differ. But the big difference is how they’re being sold and marketed.”

Their sales account for 12% of the $16.5 billion mattress industry, though only the top 10 companies make a significant dent, according to Basham. Among the major players are brands like Purple, Casper, Nectar, Leesa, and Tuft & Needle.

The legacy mattress giants like Tempur Sealy and Serta Simmons should be nervous, Peter Keith, an analyst at Piper Jaffray told the news outlet in an interview. Sales units on average at those companies have been down 5% over the past two years.

A survey by the International Sleep Products Association reported that 45% of mattresses purchased in last year were online, up from 35% for purchases in 2017.

The majority of bed-in-a-boxes outsource their manufacturing, according to Magnuson from GoodBed.com. “None of these guys, with a few rare exceptions, make their own mattresses,” he said. “They’re literally calling around to producers saying, ‘we need a finished product and here’s what we think it should look like.’ Sometimes, they don’t even know what they want it to look like.”

The companies that make their own mattresses include Brentwood Home, Brooklyn Bedding, and Purple, Magnuson said. Many of the bigger bed-in-a-boxes do the research and development of the mattresses themselves, which differentiate how they feel.

And companies like Tuft & Needle, Casper and Leesa have layers of foam with proprietary formulas, which means they’re not the same as others.

Most of the outsourcing is to just four major manufacturers, according to Dan Schecter, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Carpenter. He told CNBC that his company makes mattresses for 40% of the mattress industry at 60 factories throughout the country. That includes including roughly 14 bed-in-a-box brands, along with all the traditional players like Tempur Sealy.

“The customer comes to us … they say they want a mattress that does these things against the body, and they would like to have these features and advantages as part of their marketing story. We then create the mattresses that dovetail with what their vision is,” he said.

Schecter said the mattresses produced by Carpenter do not have the same foam formulations, and that the company only agrees to design and manufacture mattresses that are backed by science.

Purple emphasizes the science behind its mattresses, especially its “Smart Comfort Grid” layer, which it says helps to relieve pressure on your body during sleep. Eight Sleep is another company that’s technology-oriented, and touts its mattresses’ dual temperature control and sleep tracking app.

So what’s a tired consumer supposed to buy? Until the market shakes out, that might be a problem.

But all the different offerings might just overwhelm consumers, David Srere, co-CEO of branding agency Siegel+Gale, told CNBC. “It’s the amount of information. There’s just too much,” he said. “If you go online, not only do all of them look alike, but they’re all talking about their different products. If I tell you that my mattress is special because it’s infused with copper gel, does it mean anything to you?”

Research contact: @CNBC

High five: Illinois to allow medical marijuana users to cultivate ‘a handful’ of plants at home

August 19, 2019

Talk about farm fresh! Starting next year, medical marijuana patients in Illinois will be allowed to farm their own cannabis plants at home.

Each person enrolled in the medical program—to date, that’s more than 82,000 Prairie State residents—will be able to legally grow five plants, according to a report by The Chicago Tribune.

And home and garden centers, as well as their suppliers, are gearing up to help their customers grow a bumper crop.

Indeed, several companies from as far away as Colorado and California—states where consumers have legally grown their own weed for years—brought cannabis-growing equipment to last week’s Independent Garden Center Show at McCormick Place, which had its first-ever “Cannabis Corner.”

Attendees stopped at the booths, feeling soil samples, taking pamphlets and discussing nutrients. Exhibitors were working to get their products into more garden centers.

A Pot for Pot of Oakland, California, displayed two thriving marijuana plants at its booth. One plant was 80 days old and ready for harvest, with plump buds hugging the stem, the Tribune noted. The other was half as old and hadn’t yet developed buds—but the distinctive, five-pronged leaves were full and green.

The California-based company’s marijuana kits include nutrient-rich soil, beneficial bacteria and instructions. “We like to think of ourselves as Blue Apron meets Chia Pet for growing cannabis,” one of the founders, Jason Levin, told the news outlet.

“When you look at beer and wine, that requires a lot of skill on the brewers part,” added co-founder Joshua Mezher. “With this, the plant does all the work.”

The average customer grows 1 to 3 ounces of cannabis with the kit, Mezher said. The seeds are not included in the kit. Customers order them from A Pot for Pot’s partner in the Netherlands, and the plants are usually ready to harvest in about 80 days.

The kits come in different sizes, with a five-gallon kit selling for about $100 on the company’s website and a desktop mini version that Levin said sold for $30. (“That one’s a great holiday gift because it’s cute and affordable,” Levin said.)

“The time is right. States are falling like dominoes legalizing,” Andrew Victor, national sales consultant for the Denver-based American Cannabis Company, told The Chicago Tribune. “In the middle of garden center people, here we are, American Cannabis Company, talking about growing cannabis.”

Research contact: amarotti@chicagotribune.com

Equinox to go up against Peleton and Mirror for streaming fitness supremacy

August 16, 2019

Earlier this month, Stephen Ross, the billionaire owner of the popular fitness brands, Equinox, SoulCycle, Precision Run, and Blink Fitness, sparked outrage and calls for a boycott of his businesses when he hosted a fundraiser for President Donald Trump in the fashionable Hamptons area of Long Island, New York.

But that hasn’t slowed down his push into the fitness category. In fact, Ross now has announced his intentions to take on Peloton, the New York City-based exercise equipment and media company that has revolutionized the home biking experience—connecting users to live and on-demand streaming on-screen classes across a variety of devices for $39 per month.

According to a report by Fast Company, Ross’s new digital venture will include two separate pieces of hardware and personalized content representing Ross’s portfolio of brands.

Slated for launch this fall, the platform will pair with a new stationary bike identical to the one found in SoulCycle studios—with the addition of an attached screen. Equinox also will sell its proprietary Woodway treadmill, which can already be found at its Precision Run studios.

The new digital venture (which has not yet been named, Fast Company says) will include all the brands’ signature workouts—led by top instructors—in one network. It is not meant to replace the live studio experience, rather to serve as an addition for dedicated members who want an at-home offering.

The new digital venture puts Equinox in direct competition with Peloton, which also boasts both treadmill and stationary bikes along with a broad range of fitness content. Last year, Peloton opened a new production studio dedicated to yoga and meditation in New York City. The streaming giant is now valued at more than $4 billion.

Peloton stands out in the $14 billion home fitness equipment market, but it’s becoming an increasingly crowded space: Fast Company notes the long list of competitive startups—among them,  Mirror (personal training, yoga), Crew (rowing), and Tonal (weight lifting) ; all of which are attempting to do what Peloton did for the indoor bike.

While approximately 16% of the U.S. population holds a gym membership card, a recent survey found that 54% of Americans who work out at least once a month are interested in buying an at-home fitness system.

Over the last few years, Equinox members increasingly have demanded more ways to interact with the brand on their own schedule. Around 86% of them would like to spend more time with the brand than they get to, according to a recent survey of SoulCycle riders.

The new platform will integrate live and recorded original video and audio content–and will start with an invitation-only launch in the fall, with the at-home equipment available for purchase by the winter. A more public rollout is set for early 2020.

Research contact: @Equinox_Service

Jay-Z’s Roc Nation launches partnership with NFL

August 15, 2019

Roc Nation,— the entertainment company founded in 2008 by rapper and businessman Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter—announced on August 13 that it was launching a multiyear partnership with the National Football League (NFL) geared to enhance live game experiences and to amplify the league’s social justice efforts.

As part of the agreement, Roc Nation will advise on the selection of artists for major NFL live, on-field performances such as those featured during the Super Bowl halftime break.

According to the league, a major component of the partnership will be to nurture and strengthen community through football and music, including through the NFL’s Inspire Change social justice initiative (which already is supported by eight organizations, including Alliance for Safety and Justice, Anti-Recidivism Coalition, Campaign for Black Male Achievement, Civil Rights Corps, Gideon’s Promise, NAF, Vera Institute of Justice, and VOTE).

The NFL formally launched the Inspire Change initiative in early 2019, after more than two years of work with NFL players, with the goal of creating positive change in communities across the country. Through this initiative, NFL teams and the league office work with the Players Coalition and other NFL players to support programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity, with a focus on three priority areas: education and economic advancement; police and community relations; and criminal justice reform.

“With its global reach, the National Football League has the platform and opportunity to inspire change across the country,” Jay-Z said. “Roc Nation has shown that entertainment and enacting change are not mutually exclusive ideas. Instead, we unify them. This partnership is an opportunity to strengthen the fabric of communities across America.”

Roc Nation also will work with the NFL to create and distribute content across multiple music streaming services for a variety of initiatives.

“Roc Nation is one of the most globally influential and impactful organizations in entertainment,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “The NFL and Roc Nation share a vision of inspiring meaningful social change across our country. We are thrilled to partner with Roc Nation and look forward to making a difference in our communities together.”

Research contact: @NFL

Rain check: The ClimaCell weather app alerts you to when it will rain in your town, down to the minute

August 14, 2019

Is a cloud about to burst in your immediate vicinity? Now there’s an easy and accurate way to find out.

ClimaCell, a four-year-old weather technology company based in Boston, “is on a mission to map all of the weather data in the world—and to become the “default microweather platform of the emerging technology.”

The firm—founded by a team of former military officers from the Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan—launched its weather app on August 12, offering meteorological notifications for exact locations in more than 50 countries.

It promises “street-by-street, minute-by-minute short-term forecasts, according to a report by The Washington Post.

But how does the company provide such on-target, on-time forecasts?

 ClimaCell has developed a global network of weather data that marries traditional observations of pressure, temperature, precipitation and wind with information drawn from wireless signals, satellites, connected cars, airplanes, street cameras, drones and other electronic sources, the Post reports. Millions of pieces of weather data can be derived from these technologies. It’s what the company describes as the “weather of things” (versus “the Internet of things).

This mix of data is fed into ClimaCell’s forecast models, operated in Boulder, Colorado The company created the NowCast model that gives highly specific, minute-by-minute forecasts out to six hours—as well as a longer-term model, known as CBAM, that produces forecasts out to six days.

These models are designed to provide forecasts to help businesses solve problems in which “extra accuracy” is needed, according to CE0 Shimon Elkabetz.

Many of the weather companies operating today, founded in the 1960s and 1970s, just take model forecasts from different governments, blend them, and use statistical techniques to try to make them better. But ClimaCell is creating its forecasts from scratch.

Elkabetz said early results on its accuracy are promising. Compared with government forecasts, “we’ve been able to improve almost every parameter in every time frame,” Elkabetz said.

ClimaCell has also created a software platform that allows its forecasts to be optimized and tuned to customers’ needs. Elkabetz said it can generate forecast output for any weather variable of interest, at any location and at different degrees of specificity.

The forecasts are updated or “refreshed” constantly, which is the “best way” to increase their accuracy, according to Daniel Rothenberg, ClimaCell’s chief scientist. “In our U.S. precipitation NowCast, we refresh [the forecast] end to end in under five minutes,” he told The Washington Post.

By comparison, the U.S. government model used for short-range precipitation prediction, known as the HRRR (high-resolution rapid refresh model) updates hourly.

To date, the company has worked with airlines, energy, and on-demand transportation companies, and even with the New England Patriots. JetBlue, initially a customer, was so impressed by the results that it became an investor.

“We’re trying to become the leading private company in the weather space,” Elkabetz said.

The app is available on the AppStore for iOS devices, and an Android version is to be launched in September. The app is free and does not contain advertisements, but ClimaCell does plan to charge for certain features, such as notifications for precipitation beyond a certain time.

Research contact: @ClimaCell

Nike’s first sneaker club targets new customers while they are young

August 13, 2019

Does your child like sneakers that light up? Or roll? Or high tops? Or a special color? The experience of shoe-shopping for young kids can be complex. At first glance, it’s all about the child—but, as many parents quickly realize, it’s also about their own preferences for sizing, fit, support, and aesthetics.

The reasons why are universal: Kids’ feet are continually growing, and many kids can’t articulate what they want, even after shoebox after shoebox comes out of the back room. (The foot size issue isn’t helped by the fact that 60% of people, kids included, are walking around in the wrong-sized shoe at any given time.)

But now, Nike is offering a solution to parents and children alike: Nike Adventure Club, Nike’s first footwear subscription service for children.

Through the new club, Nike not only gets a loyal, young shopper who has many years of brand preference ahead of him or her; but also gets to make personal contact with the child and parents as often as 12 times a year. (The subscription service makes three tiers of service available, ranging from four pairs of sneakers a year to 12.)

Nike Adventure Club lets kids regularly swap Nike and Converse shoes for the right-fitting shoe as their feet—and tastes—evolve.

“In providing footwear, we’re always trying to answer, ‘What do kids want?’” says Dominique Shortell, director of Product Experience and Retention for Nike Adventure Club. “But an equally important question is, ‘What kind of experience are we providing for their parents?’ We want to make shopping for footwear as convenient as possible for them.”

Here’s how it works:

  • Nike Adventure Club serves kids who wear sizes 4C to 7Y. (That’s roughly from age two through ten.)
    • Choose from three tiers of subscription services, ranging from four pairs a year to 12 pairs a year. You’re free to upgrade, downgrade or pause your subscription at any time.
    • Choose from more than 100 different sneaker styles, ranging across the spectrum of performance and sportswear.
    • If you like the shoe, you can keep the pair. If you’re ready to replace it, send it back and Adventure Club will send the next pair of your choosing. Nike Adventure Club will either donate or recycle the returned sneaker.

“We see Nike Adventure Club sits as having a unique place within Nike, and not just for it being the first sneaker club for kids,” says Dave Cobban, VP of Nike Adventure Club. “It provides a wide range of options for kids, while at the same time, it removes a friction point for parents who are shopping on their behalf.”

In addition to shoes, the subscription service comes with exclusive adventure guides, filled with outdoor games and activities that parents can do with their kids. The guides are a collaborative partnership between Nike and KaBoom, a national nonprofit focused on encouraging kids to lead active, healthy lifestyles.

Activity guides lay out fun ways for kids to get moving.Nike Adventure Club fulfilled its first subscriptions beginning August 12.

Research contact: @NikeAdventure

Sticking to their guns: Walmart asks employees to pull violent video game signage from stores

August 12, 2019

Even a mass shooting at its El Paso, Texas, store is not enough to make Walmart gun-shy, it became apparent last week, when the major retail chain asked employees its employees nationwide on August 10 to take down signs and playable demos of violent video games—but made no changes to its policy on selling firearms.

According to a report by Reuters, in doing so, the retailer said it has taken the action following the mass shootings in Texas and Ohio in the past week, which left 31 people dead.

In an internal memo, the retailer asked employees to check their stores for signage or displays that contain violent or aggressive behavior and remove such items immediately. It also instructed employees to turn off hunting season videos.

The company has come under increasing pressure to act in the past few days. A petition started by Thomas Marshall, a category manager in Walmart’s San Bruno, California-based e-commerce business, to protest the retailer’s sale of firearms, has gathered more than 50,000 signatures by Friday, Bloomberg reported.

Walmart told Reuters there has been no change in its policy on gun sales after the mass shootings, one of which took place in a Walmart store. This has not always been the case: Years of public pressure led Walmart, the largest U.S arms retailer, to end assault-rifle sales in 2015 and to raise the minimum age for gun purchases to 21 in 2018.

Some gun control activists and Walmart customers now want the retailer to drop sales of guns and ammunition altogether.

Research source: @Reuters

Streaming bundle of Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+ will cost $12.99/month

August 9, 2019

Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger wants to ensure that” The Happiest Place on Earth” for U.S. entertainment viewers is the spot in front of their  television screens: He just announced that the company’s new .content-streaming service will include Disney Plus, and ESPN Plus, as well as Hulu—and will cost just $12.99 per month.

The service will be available starting November 12, according to a report by CBS News.

That’s almost twice the monthly fee that Disney projected in April, when the company said the Disney Plus alone would cost $6.99 per month, or well below the $12.99 monthly fee charged by Netflix for its most popular streaming plan. But because Hulu and ESPN Plus cost about $6 and $5 per month, respectively, the bundle of three services represents a $5 monthly savings—and the price is a “wash” when compared with the most popular plan offered by Netflix. 

By bundling the three services, Disney is taking aim at Netflix and Amazon Prime Video with a combination of family-friendly content, new TV shows and sports broadcasts, CBS News notes.. Netflix’s premium plan is $15.99 per month, while its most popular plan is $12.99 per month. Amazon Prime Video is available to consumers who pay $119 per year for Amazon’s Prime service.

The goal, Iger said on a Tuesday, August 7, conference call with investors and media, is to “have general entertainment, we’ll call it Hulu, more family-like entertainment, which is Disney+, and sports.”

He added, “And that bundle that we’re creating, that $12.99 bundle, where you can buy all three offers consumers tremendous volume, tremendous quality, and tremendous variety for a good price.”

Disney has said its 2019 movies and all films released afterwards will be streamed only on Disney Plus. That includes “Captain Marvel,” which came out earlier this year; “Avengers: Endgame,” which debuts in late April; and the upcoming “Toy Story 4; as well as the ” live-action movies, “The Lion King” and “Aladdin;” and “Star Wars Episode IX.”

Research content: @Disney

End of the road: FedEx to discontinue ground deliveries for Amazon

August 8, 2019

As Amazon continues to offer more products and faster shipments, most of its Delivery Service Partners are continuing to say “How high?” when the Seattle-based company asks them to jump.

But that’s not the case with Memphis-based Federal Express, which until recently had been among the company’s swiftest and most dependable contractors.

In fact, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal, on August 7, FedEx announced that it would not renew its contract at the end of this month to deliver Amazon packages through its ground network—essentially severing ties with one of the world’s biggest shippers.

The shipping and logistics company already had discontinued its U.S. air deliveries for the e-commerce giant in June, but had said at that time that it would continue to handle ground deliveries and international shipments. Now just the global business remains.

The moves are evidence of escalating tensions between the longtime partners as the e-commerce giant builds out its own delivery services, the Journal said—including leasing cargo planes, buying trucks, and funding local delivery drivers.

“This change is consistent with our strategy to focus on the broader e-commerce market, which the recent announcements related to our FedEx Ground network have us positioned extraordinarily well to do,” FedEx commented.

The decision has come at a time when Amazon already is planning its holiday deliveries. The e-commerce company will have to find a new way to handle millions of packages ahead of the critical holiday shopping season at the same time it continues looking to speed home deliveries.

The once-staid delivery business has been upended in recent years as consumers buy everything from toilet paper to trampolines online, causing a surge in e-commerce shipments. FedEx and rival United Parcel Service have invested billions of dollars to handle the increased volumes. FedEx recently said it would expand to seven-day home deliveries, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Although Amazon ships millions of packages a day, it spreads the orders among FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service, as well as its own growing delivery operations. FedEx has said Amazon represented 1.3% of FedEx’s total revenue in 2018, or less than $1 billion.

Research contact: @FedEx