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SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- Tuesday's final sessions of the annual Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Midwinter Executive Conference followed up on the theme of re-establishing a customer connection that had dominated the proceedings on day one.

(For our earlier report on the conference, go to: /)

Don Tapscott, co-author of The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business was the day's main event, and he addressed how corporate transparency is "a powerful new force in the economy" that gives "unprecedented visibility into your company."

What this ultimately means, he said, is that retailers have to offer the best prices, best products, or best relationships - and if they don't, consumers will find out about it and might even self-organize to draw attention to a retailer's shortcomings. And transparency makes results only part of the picture, he said; process also becomes important, because process is on display for everyone to see.

Curiously, transparency isn't a new phenomenon. Tapscott said that back in the old days of the neighborhood grocery store, everything was transparent…but that this has been obscured over time by mass marketing and supply chain issues. But now, as technologies such as the Internet make companies transparent in new (and sometimes frightening) ways, and the younger generation embraces these opportunities as the first generation "bathed in bits," all of a company's stakeholders (employees, partners, consumers, shareholders, and communities) have a unique window into a company's soul.

Tapscott said, however, that this is a wonderful opportunity for retailers to tell a story about the food they sell. "Why can't we as consumers know everything about our food?" he asked. "Real value comes to the fore in this environment." And if there was any doubt in anyone's mind, Tapscott suggested that the Atkins Diet rage has been largely fueled by "transparent communication" - people using the various communications tools at their disposal to share their stories and experiences.

"This isn’t about spin," Tapscott said. "It is about finding new ways to engage your stakeholders."
KC's View:
Tapscott's view is, in our opinion, right on (not that he needs confirmation from us). Too many retailers see the modern environment as a threat, when it is in fact a wonderful opportunity for differentiation.

But you gotta embrace it. And you gotta be willing to go out on a limb. Because, as it ends up, the limb is the only place with a really good view of the future, the only place from which we can figure out which way to go.

On another subject, we do have to tell you about a little moment that occurred Tuesday morning.

As usual, FMI devoted much of the morning to a discussion of public policy and politics, with Richard Haass, a former advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell, offering some thoughts about foreign policy issues.

At one point, Haass was talking about the need to get North Korea to back down from its nuclear expansionism, mostly because of fears that it might sell the technology as a way of rectifying its own impoverished state. "We don't want North Korea to become a nuclear Wal-Mart," he said.

We happened to be sitting next to Ed Kolodzieski, who runs Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets division…and he sort of shook his head ruefully at the comment. It's bad enough when you wake up to find that The New York Times is accusing your company of illegal labor practices, but when you also get used in a metaphor about North Korea…well, you’re not having a good day.