SOS: Cisco, air travel, and the cost of bad marketing

We know two things.

1) The world of airtravel is ripe for a revolution.

2) The company is place is not up for the job of fomenting this revolution.   Cisco can't get the job done.

Proposition 1: the world of air travel is ripe for revolution.

Everyone has one or more horror stories: canceled flights, late arrives, missed connections, lost luggage, being forced to sit in a plane on the ground because the airline wants to protect its on-time departure rating.  The list goes on.  In the early days, air travel was something glamorous.  Now it's more like a kidnapping by amateurs.

In Pip Coburn's view of the world, "current pain" is enormous.  That's the pain caused by the existing technology.  And "future pain" (the cost of adopting a new technology) is modest.

Yes, there will be some loss of information.  Horrors, there may even be a loss of clients.  But, wow, compare the investment you are obliged to make to get from your desk to the boardroom at the end of the hall to all the things you need to get from New York to and from Chicago.  I believe this is what the economist's call a "good deal." 

Cost recovery should happen very quickly.  Think of all the costs there are to recover: air fair, taxi rides, hotel bills, food expenses.  The high end solution for Cisco, a televisual suite, is $150,000.  It simulates the meeting room with high fidelity. 

If the average cost of a business trip is $300 air fare and taxi + 200 hotel and food, all we need are 300 trips to make back our investment.  I would guess that for a small company, this is a year's worth of travel.  And this takes no account of the increased happiness and efficiency of our staff. 

Proposition 2: Cisco is not up for the job.

Cisco has a solution.  Call it tele-precense or tele-communting.  It is capable of doing to the airtravel industry what Amazon did to retail: disintermediating it.

Here's how Cisco describes what they do:

Cisco TelePresence™ creates a live, face-to-face communication experience over the network that empowers you to collaborate like never before. Cisco TelePresence helps people meet, share content, create high-quality video recordings and events, consult with experts and deliver powerful personalized services, all using the power of the network for an immersive in-person experience.

With Cisco TelePresence:

    * Scheduling is easy-no IT support required
    * Launching a meeting is as simple as making a phone call.
    * People appear lifelike and life-size

The trouble here is that this is one of those tipping point markets.  Right now the installed base of Cisco tech is small.  And as long as this is true, it doesn't much matter that we have the technology.  We can't use it effectively till others do too.

And this is where we come down to Cisco's insufficiency.  What we need here is a marketer so smart that they can push this market over the tipping point.  Cisco need an ace like Sergio Zyman or some other master of the art and science of marketing. 

Here's what I know.  Air travel is broken.  Cisco can fix it.  Please.  Start.  Now. 

post script.

Maybe the problem is not Cisco but the ad agency.  See a Cisco ad here.


Coburn, Pip. 2007. The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn. New York: Portfolio.

10 thoughts on “SOS: Cisco, air travel, and the cost of bad marketing”

  1. Grant, this is an interesting post.
    There is something, isn’t there, something that is hard to put your finger on, that is stopping video-conferencing from truly taking off.
    Is it a generational thing? My kids use their webcam every day, routinely, have done for years, yet at work webcams are limited, for senior staff only, and not well used. Perhaps, yet companies adopt other technologies easily enough.
    I don’t think it is the quality of CISCO’s advertising that is to blame.

  2. Why do we think that big, monolithic, proprietary companies will solve the problems created by other big, monolithic, proprietary companies? The real revolutionary change is small and disruptive and, frankly, has already happened. Apple’s iChat multi-chat with screen sharing, Citrix’s, and countless smaller whiteboarding / video-conferencing / collaboration tools largely obviate the need for anyone to physically travel anywhere to get work done — business travel is ‘prestige’ travel, about declaring importance of relationships via your epic journey to go see someone for an hour in a boardroom. And even that has lost its lustre.

    There are entire web startup companies that operate in the cloud, out of cafés (literally) without offices at all. The question is not will Cisco’s Big Expensive Solution remove the need for air travel, it is that collective, collaged, collaborative tools will obviate the need for Big Expensive Solutions!

  3. We worked with HP on their Halo product (which predated Cisco by a year or more but hasn’t got the mindshare (can’t speak to the market share)) and I think the frame that travel and videoconferencing are solving the same problem may not be the right one.

    I think videoconferencing is always there to bolster “making do” which is what all these distributed teams in corporations are being asked to do.

    I’m also impressed with how much care both firms are putting into the details of the user experience in order to get it to some version of “right”: eye contact is maintained, lag is eliminated, spatial audio, high resolution video, all sort of technology tricks but aimed at trying to break through that awful void that we enter when we get on a conference call, etc. There’s just no reality, no relationship, and often silence and discomfort and eye-rolling, but the application of technology towards that goal is noble.

    Does anyone talk on the phone on their iPhone? Because it sucks! You can’t hear the other person and you don’t know if you are being heard. Does anyone use a Blueooth headset? Because they suck, too. But we tolerate these mostly-failing user experiences that are about interacting with other people – potentially the most important use of all this technology – to connect people together over a range of distance in real time. But when it’s awful, what is the toll?

    Agreed, the price makes it out of reach for almost everyone, but maybe that’s a business model issue. When there was on TV on the street, we went down the street to watch TV. When phones come out, there was one per town. Only recently is there one per person (and not in every part of the world). So we’re at early days of high-resolution high-fidelity interpersonal communication. And I think we need that very badly.

  4. You aren’t talking about revolutionizing air travel. You’re talking about reducing or eliminating business travel. Those are two different things.

    I’m quite certain telepresence is going to take off. It’s got far too many advantages not to. Here are the two that occur to me off-hand:

    * Complete control of who people talk to and complete monitoring of what they say. No more coming home with disruptive or unpopular ideas from conferences.

    * More hours worked. That time you used to spend in the hotel room, before and after training, getting what you’d learned grooved into your brain? Now you’ll spend it back on task. Too bad about that learning thing, but we can measure your hours, so that’s what we’ll manage.

  5. Maybe hotels shoul invest in that stuff – then you could hire it on per hour basis – a bit more hassle than going down the hall but still less than the air trip. But I agree with the earlier comments – the low end iChat or Skype tele-presence is really where the revolution happens and the high-end sophisticated solution has only temporal business opportunity. Finally interoperatibility between the high and low ends could also become the tipping point.

  6. Videoconferencing has been about to reach its tipping point now for a couple of decades — permanent imminence, I would call it. That it hasn’t taken off can only partly be due to the glitches of the technology, since we train ourselves to use other technologies despite their glitches and flaws all the time (pre-War cars, black-and-white TV, early photocopying machines, early cell phones, satellite comms, skype, video recorder interfaces, early computer keyboards, Windows OS). There must be something else besides videoconferencing technology keeping air-travel alive — whether it is the real benefits of face-to-face interactions, the prestige of air-travel (although diminishing), or perhaps the time-to-oneself that business travellers receive. If ever a subject demanded anthropological investigation . . . .

  7. Ah, the old network effect…my use of a product becomes valuable enough for me to buy it only when and if enough other people are using it…telephones, fax machines, bar codes and scaners (a two-fer).

    Economists (of which I am one) have yet to develop a plausible explanation for why some networks develop and others don’t. Maybe you anthropoligists could take a shot?

    (I should note that one reason videoconferencing has not yet gained the market share people have been predicting for it for more than a decade now is that, even done as well as it can be done, it still is not a particularly good substitite for face-to-face meetings. So there’s still a quality-of-experience threshhold that needs to be dealt with. At least that’s been my experience)

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