Kanye Tests Bite-Sized Music

The Wall Street Journal: “Kanye West is betting that good things can come from small packages. The 41-year-old rapper has produced five albums, each with seven tracks, many under three minutes. Released on consecutive Fridays, mostly by his record label, G.O.O.D. Music, and its partner Def Jam Recordings, the minialbums are making waves in a music industry where bigger has increasingly been seen as better … G.O.O.D. Music’s experiment is the latest instance of labels and artists tinkering with release strategies in the streaming age. Streaming is now the most popular way Americans listen to music. As listening habits change, record executives and musicians are trying to figure out how to reach fans and distinguish their releases in an increasingly crowded market.”

“Similar to how Mr. West’s provocative tweets and interviews in recent months helped him break through the clutter of social media ahead of his new releases, his seven-track albums are generating buzz for G.O.O.D. Music, music-industry experts say … It’s too soon to tell if shorter albums will trump longer ones in the streaming world … Bite-sized LPs may go down smoother for music fans inundated each week not just with music, but movies, videogames and social-media.”

“Mr. West hasn’t detailed his strategy, but he hints at the idea of shorter tracks on 4th Dimension, a 2½-minute song on Kids See Ghosts. The track samples Someday, by gospel singer Shirley Ann Lee, which includes the lines ‘you only want 2½ minutes if you can get it…three minutes maximum’ and ‘when it get too many then they can’t remember it and then they lose interest’.”

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MacBlur: Apple Melds Laptops & iPhones

The Wall Street Journal: “Laptops, which haven’t been exciting for years, are about to get interesting again … Many manufacturers are already using mobile chips from smartphones in laptops running Google’s Chrome OS, and are starting to put them in laptops running Microsoft Windows. Apple Inc. already designs its own chips, which are arguably the fastest mobile processors in the world—will it use them in its own MacBooks? A shift in this direction would blur the line between laptops and mobile devices further, changing our expectations of computers large and small.”

“So imagine something that looks like a MacBook and works like a MacBook, but has the guts of an iPhone. In addition to things like facial recognition and AR capabilities, it could have longer battery life, built-in always-on connectivity to fast 5G networks, and more … The size of the circuitry on a microchip, known as a process node, determines its power consumption, performance and cost. The smaller the transistors on the chip, the wider the variety of stuff you can put on it, such as wireless modems, GPS receivers, image processors and the like. Each new silicon breakthrough is named after the ever-smaller distance between certain chip components, measured in nanometers.”

“Apple is also pushing capabilities such as on-device artificial intelligence, which could enable better voice recognition and other capabilities, and the company aims to support only its own graphics software in the future. Because Apple’s in-house chip designers only have one customer—Apple—they’re able to tune its silicon to run all these things as fast as possible.”

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Computers Teach Humans To Be More Human

The Wall Street Journal: “Can a computer program make humans more human? That’s the goal of new software aimed at making call-center agents better at their jobs by assessing performance on phone etiquette and social skills like empathy and patience … Cogito is one of several companies developing analytics tools that give agents feedback about how conversations with customers are going.”

“Its software measures in real time the tone of an agent’s voice, their speech rate, and how much each person is talking … That dance is sometimes out of sync, such as when an agent speaks too quickly or too much, cuts a customer off, has extended periods of silence or sounds tired … When the software detects these mistakes, a notification pops up on a window on an agent’s screen to coax them to change their strategy.”

“These tools don’t understand every nuance of what a person says—which, for now, might assuage privacy concerns about companies listening in on conversations and analyzing that data.”

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How Moosejaw & Walmart Make Music

The Wall Street Journal: “Walmart is betting that even under its umbrella, Moosejaw and other brands like the feminist-leaning ModCloth and men’s fashion clothier Bonobos can remain convincingly hipster. But Walmart has such a distinct culture; will it be able to maintain an appropriate distance or will executives from Bentonville swoop in, forcing everyone to wear those iconic blue big-box vests? … Some suppliers of high-end gear abandoned Moosejaw’s shelves to avoid doing business with its new parent.”

Yet: “Moosejaw’s loyalist shoppers appear unfazed. While there have been reports of social-media backlash against Walmart ownership of firms like ModCloth, Walmart’s overall e-commerce sales have picked up … Moosejaw will soon have a rolling pop-up store pulled across the U.S. by a semi truck—another innovation private-equity backers may not have sponsored. With access to Walmart’s shipping rates, Moosejaw.com offers free two-day shipping, which is increasingly expected by online shoppers.”

“Then there is the beer cooler. Much has been made of alcohol policies at Walmart subsidiaries, and Moosejaw’s victory in this category is notable. Before the acquisition, Bentonville executives noticed a padlocked beer cooler at its Madison Heights, Mich., headquarters … Shortly after the deal … Chief Executive Doug McMillon concluded that because Moosejaw had responsible policies, the cooler could stay. At this month’s shareholder meeting Mr. McMillon gave analysts a glimpse of why he’s bending the rules. He carries a list with him of top retailers from decades gone by, a sobering list that includes struggling Kmart and Sears that reminds him of the fleeting nature of success. Yesterday’s retail kings die ‘because they don’t change,’ he said.”

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How Ben & Jerry’s Creates Flavors

Fast Company: “Ben & Jerry’s tastemakers don’t just rely on their own judgment … After assembling a couple hundred ideas, the Gurus then turn to a surprisingly low-tech yet crucial source in order to whittle them down: email surveys. Close to 200 flavor possibilities enter the ‘reduction’ stage. Only about 15 make it through. The team sends out a short survey to a representative slice of its massive email list of ice cream enthusiasts. The survey is extremely straightforward; it consists of a one-sentence description of each of the 200 flavors, followed by the same two questions apiece: How likely are you to buy this flavor? How unique is this flavor?”

“Respondents are asked to rank their answers on a five-point scale. According to the Flavor Gurus, the goal is to zero in on flavors that are both familiar and novel.”

“The second question, ‘How unique is the flavor?’ helps Gurus ensure they’re maintaining enough novelty in the flavor pool. Based on the survey data, the team settles on the 15 flavors they believe have the ideal balance of novelty and familiarity. This is the reduction step, and it’s likewise a key part of many creative processes. To generate ideas that stick, you need to go from a wide-ranging list of plausible ideas to a data-driven subset of the ones that have the strongest likelihood of succeeding, based on whatever metrics for success you’ve outlined.”

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Ikea Future: (Not) Plastics!

Fast Company: “By 2020, if you order ‘Nordic fruit water’ with your vegetarian meatballs at one of Ikea’s in-store restaurants, you’ll no longer be able to drink it with a plastic straw. The company will stop using single-use plastic including straws, cutlery, and drink stirrers in its cafes … It will also remove single-use plastic products, like garbage bags and 200-packs of straws, from the shelves of the store.”

“It’s a small part of the company’s sustainability strategy. Ikea is already planning to phase out virgin oil-based plastic in its products, moving to either plastic made from renewable materials or recycled plastic. It was the first major retailer to stop using plastic bags, in 2007. It invested in a plastic recycling plant in 2017 to help with that goal.”

Sander Defruyt, who leads the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, comments: “I think the approach of Ikea is interesting in that they take a full-systems perspective. They recognize the need to eliminate some of the most problematic or unnecessary plastics where possible, and at the same time, also make sure that they decouple the plastics they do use from virgin fossil fuel plastics by using recycled plastic as much as possible and for the remainder switch to renewables. It’s a nuanced and quite comprehensive strategy.”

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Meatless Meat Stampedes Grocery Stores

The Wall Street Journal: “For thousands of years, meat came from slaughtered animals, and milk was squeezed from cows. Tech-style disruptions are now upending supermarket meat cases and turning the stomach of cattle ranchers … dismayed to find the meat replacements sold next to the real thing. High-tech startups are building burgers from plant proteins and compounds that grill and taste more like the real thing than old-fashioned veggie burgers. Other firms are using cell-culture technology to grow animal muscle tissue—otherwise known as meat—in stainless steel bioreactor tanks, similar to the fermentors used to brew beer.”

“The U.S. Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the Agriculture Department to bar plant-based products from bearing labels that say ‘beef’ or ‘meat,’ with similar restrictions on meat grown from animal cells … Stakes are high for the roughly $200 billion U.S. meat market. Sales of alternative meat products account for less than 1% of fresh meat sales in the U.S. but are growing at an annual rate of 24.5%, according to Nielsen Total Food View.”

“To get better exposure, Beyond Meat requires that retailers carry its products in the grocery meat section, rather than the frozen foods case—what Mr. Brown called the ‘penalty box.’ Alison Pham, 22, of Bokeelia, Fla., is a vegan who sees the realistic looking Beyond Meat patties as a way to get her father to try a plant-based diet. She reaches for the package in the same meat-filled cases she long avoided.”

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eMacy’s Rises, While eSears Sinks

The Wall Street Journal: “Among a crop of five retailers analyzed by Edison Trends, including Sears, Kmart, Kohl’s, Macy’s, and J.C. Penney, Macy’s has seen the strongest online growth in 2018, climbing 28% in monthly order volume since January. Meanwhile, Sears’s online order volume fell 25% from January to May. Penney looks only marginally better than Sears. Though it, too, operated a big catalog business, Penney failed to make the necessary digital investments to stay ahead.”

“As Sears shutters stores—it announced another 60 closures last month—e-commerce could have been the company’s future. Instead it has fallen far behind traditional retailers, and is way, way behind its big competitors, Walmart and Target . Maybe Sears should have stuck with the catalog.”

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ConAgra: Fresh in Frozen

The Wall Street Journal: “Last year, Conagra freshened up of three of its frozen brands: Healthy Choice, Marie Callender’s and Banquet. Healthy Choice, a diet brand launched in 1989, rolled out new microwavable meal bowls with trendy ingredients like edamame, kale and quinoa, and exotic flavors like Cuban pork and Korean beef. Banquet, a value-oriented brand with frozen basics like chicken fingers and meatloaf that typically sell for around $1 each, also got an upgrade, including Buffalo Chicken Mac ‘N Cheese bowls that sell for $2 or more.”

“The results have been clear. Comparable sales for Conagra’s refrigerated and frozen-food segment went from declining sharply last fiscal year to rising for three quarters in a row, reaching 2.6% growth in the quarter ended Feb. 25. Conagra Chief Executive Sean Connolly summed up his approach at a Goldman Sachs conference in May: ‘When you take legacy, well-known brands and bring modern elements into the food and packaging, you will have a winner’.”

“Consumers are shying away from carbohydrates and processed foods, preferring fresh meat and vegetables. But these take more effort to cook and can look less than fresh by the end of the week. For busy, health-conscious families, picking up proteins and vegetables from the freezer aisle makes sense. Perceptions of the health properties of frozen vegetables have also improved after studies showed they can retain nutrients better than vegetables that have sat for days in delivery trucks or grocery shelves.”

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