Surprise #2: Microsoft is Leading PC Innovation

Farhad Manjoo: Microsoft “is making the most visionary computers in the industry, if not the best machines, period. In the last two years, while Apple has focused mainly on mobile devices, Microsoft has put out a series of computers that reimagine the future of PCs in thrilling ways … perhaps because it’s way behind Apple, Microsoft’s hardware division is creating products more daring than much of what has been coming out of its rival lately.”

“Under Panos Panay, Microsoft’s Surface chief, the company has given its designers and engineers license to rethink the future of PCs in grand ways — to sit in an empty room, dream big things, and turn those visions into reality … The mind-set has resulted in several shining ideas. For Surface Studio, Microsoft built a brilliant companion device called Surface Dial — a palm-size knob that sits on your drafting-table screen, creating a tactile interface with which to control your computer.”

You can use Dial for basic things like turning up the volume. But in the hands of a designer, it becomes a lovely tool; you can scrub through edits in a video or change your pen color in Photoshop with a turn of the wheel … Dial is one of those interface breakthroughs that we might have once looked to Apple for. Now, it’s Microsoft that’s pushing new modes of computing … it’s unlikely that Microsoft’s PC hardware business will beat Apple’s anytime soon. But anyone who cares about the future of the PC should be thrilled that Apple now faces a serious and creative competitor.”

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Adidas Grows ‘Creator Farm’ in Brooklyn

Business Insider: “In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in an unassuming warehouse space just across the street from a stone supplier, Adidas is plotting the future. That’s where the company has built its Brooklyn Creator Farm, a relatively secret location where Adidas hosts a small team of designers from studios around the world. Their job? ‘Creating culture,’ said Marc Dolce, VP and creative director at Adidas.”

“The farm is separated into two parts: the designer’s area, and the Adidas’ Brooklyn MakerLab. The MakerLab — which is one of three in the Adidas ecosystem — has all the high-tech machinery and materials needed to create any kind of sneaker or piece of apparel the designers can dream up … The designer’s area itself is chock-full of idea boards and materials to inspire … Global Creative Director Paul Gaudio said it’s called a farm because the brand wanted the space to be ‘earthy and real and where you can get your hands dirty’.”

“The farm designers are influenced by the fluid and dynamic culture of where they are in Brooklyn. For example, a designer can join a night running group and learn not just what they need from a running shoe, but what these runners do for fun and what kind of lives they lead … “In the end, it’s very much a brand statement,” Gaudio said. “It’s who we are; It’s who we want to be. It’s so deeply connected to that strategy of understanding where culture happens. New York City is the place.”

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Brandless: When The Brand is No Brand

Quartz: “E-commerce company Brandless launched last week, but it is already billing itself as the ‘Procter and Gamble of millennials.’ The startup sells a variety of Brandless-branded foods and household goods, supplied by its proprietary partner manufacturers, and all priced at $3 … The company promises to keep prices low by eliminating the BrandTax, a phrase it requested a trademark for last November, and which it defines as the ‘hidden costs you pay for a national brand.’ Its simple white labeling was designed by a team of product and marketing experts and food scientists.”

According to CEO Tina Sharkey: “The Brandless movement is the ‘democratization of goodness.’ It’s that everyone ‘deserves better, and better shouldn’t cost more.’ The $3 price point is designed to make it ‘very freeing when you shop on brandless.com.’ Brandless wants people to ‘live more and brand less,’ to ‘tell their own stories,’ and to drop the ‘false narratives’ sold by Madison Avenue. ”

“In the meantime Brandless is crafting its own narrative. On its website, the company claims the average person pays a 40% or greater BrandTax markup on products ‘of comparable quality as ours.’ This seems likely true of Brandless organic extra virgin olive oil ($3 for 8.5 oz, or about 35 cents an ounce) but perhaps less so for its organic taco seasoning mix ($3 for a pair of 1 oz packets).”

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Tony Chocolonely: Slave-Free Chocolate Bars

Fast Company: “Since hitting U.S. shelves last fall, a new kind of chocolate bar company is trying a different tactic: Making ‘100% slave-free’ its central selling point. Amsterdam-based Tony’s Chocolonely features a wrapper with the brand’s name spelled out in large, cartoonish lettering. Inside, the chunky squares are divided unevenly to represent the inequality within the industry.”

“To meet that promise, company leader Henk Jan Beltman … had to rethink nearly everything about how traditional supply and production works. Rather than contract with international traders, the company deals directly with independent in-country farming cooperatives, which sometimes receive NGO support. All participants not only share practices to grow better crops, but agree to be monitored, ensuring instances of child labor are spotted and addressed.”

Tony’s Chocolonely “was originally started by a Dutch journalist named Teun ‘Tony’ van de Keuken who, after investigating how slave-based beans were mixed up and melted down with everything else, originally decided to make an absurdist documentary about the injustice in 2004. Van de Keuken bought and ate some off-the-shelf bars and then turned himself in to the police, citing his behavior as helping finance criminal operations. Theatric aside, he wasn’t convicted, so he launched a chocolate company to prove there was another way to ethically manufacture.” Says Beltman: “It’s the lonely battle of Tony to change the chocolate industry from the inside out.”

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Nike Hears Adidas’ Footsteps

The Wall Street Journal: “With the retail sector in flux, Nike Inc. is looking for new ways to sell sneakers and shirts, but some industry watchers worry that the company’s efforts to broaden its reach could damage its cultural cachet … Frequent online releases of coveted Jordan shoes could make them less rare and not as much in demand anymore, some industry watchers say. By making certain shoes available only through Nike channels or big chains such as Foot Locker, the company is diminishing the mom-and-pop shops that have served as community stewards of cool.”

“Matt Halfhill, founder of sneaker-news site Nice Kicks, which chronicles new releases across major shoe brands … said he has been involved in sneaker culture since the 1990s, believes the push toward direct sales actually hurts Nike’s connection with consumers.” He comments: “It’s a great way to sell commoditized shoes, but most boutiques even discourage you from buying on the phone. They only sell shoes in stores to customers, where you see everyone in line waiting for shoes talking to each other,” he said.”

Meanwhile: “Adidas’s resurgence includes new ‘franchises’—such as the NMD and Kanye West’s Yeezy line—that have gained a youthful following and made inroads on Nike’s cultural dominance. Nick Santora, a former sneaker-store owner and editor of online sneaker magazine Classic Kicks, said Adidas is more on point with youth culture of late.” He comments: “Kanye, for some people, for certain kids, that brand is now acceptable. Nike was always ‘sports, sports, sports,’ but if you’re over 11 years old right now, musicians are where it’s at.”

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Hamburger Helpless: Packaged Goods Plight

The Wall Street Journal: “The plight of the packaged-goods companies is a classic business tale. An industry creates winning products, carves out strong market positions and enjoys reliable, sustained revenue—only to be too slow to adapt to changes that threaten those cash cows … Many big brands didn’t move fast enough to remove artificial ingredients and haven’t been able to shed the negative perception of processed food, said several food executives and others close to the industry.”

Meanwhile: “The web and social media gave smaller food companies a direct path to consumers’ hearts, minds and stomachs. They gained traction through blogs and Facebook with little marketing spending, selling food online via Amazon.com Inc. or their own websites long before they would have been able to get it in stores … Big brands can no longer control perceptions about food with television advertisements and shelf placement.”

“Kellogg Co., General Mills and others have directly invested in food startups through venture-capital funds that they say will give them insight as to how to respond better to evolving trends.”

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Instagram Oreos: The New Flavorites

The New York Times: “Oreo makes a lot of cookies — 40 billion of them in 18 countries each year — enough to make it the world’s best-selling cookie. Most of them are the familiar sandwich that’s over 100 years old: white cream nestled between two chocolate wafers. But the company has increasingly been experimenting with limited-edition flavors that seemed designed as much for an Instagram feed as they are to be eaten.”

“This year, the company released limited-edition flavors like Jelly Donut, Mississippi Mud Pie and Firework. They joined a packed shelf that has recently included flavors like Cookie Dough, Birthday Cake, Mint, S’Mores and Red Velvet, which proved so popular as a limited edition that the company upgraded it to everyday flavor status.”

“The company is using the hashtag #MyOreoCreation to collect suggested flavors. The top flavors, as determined by Oreo, will be produced and available nationwide next year for the public to vote on. And here’s where things get, comparatively, weird. Some contenders so far have included English Breakfast Tea (it tastes like tea), Peach Melba (has the flavor of a gummi peach), Mermaid (a sort of lime cream), and at least three doughnut-adjacent flavors to complement the Jelly Donut already in mass production … (The winning flavor may return for a limited-edition run or even as a permanent flavor, but that will be up to Oreo to decide.)”

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Function of Beauty: Algorithmic Shampoo

Business Insider: Function of Beauty “lets you create custom shampoos and conditioners based on your hair type and goals.” Zahir Dossa came up with the idea while developing his dissertation at MIT. He explains: “I saw that was the most bloated [industry] was beauty, and more interestingly, the value chain for beauty hadn’t really changed over the last 100 years. There were all these middlemen in the way.”

“Dossa decided to build a direct-to-consumer company that focused specifically on hair care. Shampoos and conditioners were the most varied because of different hair types and hair goals… Function of Beauty can create 12 billion different combinations of ingredients … You start by taking a quiz on Function of Beauty’s website about your hair … You’ll answer questions about your hair type, hair structure, and scalp moisture. Next, you’ll select five ‘hair goals’ … Then, you’ll pick which color and scent you’d like the shampoo and conditioner to be, along with the fragrance strength. After that, Function of Beauty will build your custom formula using its algorithm.”

“Once the set is delivered to a customer, they can test it out. If it doesn’t work for their hair, they can send it back and a new formula will be created, free of charge. Function of Beauty also has a subscription service, so you can have new products delivered without having to manually reorder or shop in a store.”

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French Twist: How Yoplait Manufactures Authenticity

The New York Times: “Thick, sour Greek yogurts with names like Chobani, Fage and Oikos were surging in popularity. Sales of runny, sugary Yoplait were oozing off a cliff. So Yoplait executives ran to their test kitchens and developed a Greek yogurt of their own … They called it Yoplait Greek. It tanked almost immediately. And so has almost every other Greek yogurt product that Yoplait has put on shelves.”

“So now, Yoplait is opening a new front in the cultured-milk battles … They’re calling it Oui by Yoplait, in homage to the company’s French roots … if, as you are shopping, you happen to pick up a small glass pot of Oui and are momentarily transported to the French countryside, you’ll know that the company has finally figured out how to look beyond the data and embrace the narrative. Yoplait may have figured out how to fake authenticity as craftily as everyone else.”

“Yoplait began scouring its own history and ultimately found a tale that seemed to resonate: For centuries (or so the story goes), French farmers have made yogurt by putting milk, fruit and cultures into glass jars and then setting them aside. So Yoplait tweaked its recipe and began buying glass jars … It has a creamy texture and sweet flavor. And if this product is a success — if years from now someone tells the heartwarming story of how the Greek hordes were defeated by simple French pots — then we’ll know that Yoplait’s number crunchers finally figured out the formula for authenticity, and have reclaimed their crown.”

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