A Marketer’s Dilemma

3 07 2011

It was just another two-hour flight home from Vegas. Aside from the kids playing across the aisle, not much was going on. The adults were tired, no doubt from playing hard in Sin City. We were nearly to Amarillo when my colleague, Dr Browning, poked me and asked completely out of the blue, “So what are some problems you see?”

“Huh? Problems? You mean like how I was asleep but now I am awake?”

“No…problems. Things that bug you. Big problems.”

“Wow,” I mumbled as I tried to stave off a few more snores. “That’s a tough one.”

After a long pause and having drawn deep into my well of Things That Bug Me, I gushed about the problems in Darfur, piracy in Somalia, urban design, car culture, water consumption, and a general disrespect for our natural resources. But by then I was becoming more fully awake, and I served a glass full of my biggest concern.

“You know, what really bothers me is that, as a free market, small government Marketing kind of guy, that 70% of our economy is derived from retail,” I started to lecture. “While I am happy with the other 30% representing a fairly small government, it concerns me that, in order for our economy to keep rolling along, the whole thing is predicated on our continuing to buy stuff.”

“Which is precisely what Marketing is all about. Buying more stuff.”

And at the risk of this beginning to sound like a cheap ripoff from a Carlin sketch, it is our ever-growing piles of stuff that keep us employed. Stop buying stuff? People get laid off. Stores close. Manufacturers go belly-up.

Of course, Dr Browning should know better than to ask deep questions. I can pontificate with the best of them. She has had to suffer through numerous rants, raves, and philosophical discourses. It’s like a gas can asking a fellow for a match. Don’t get me started.

But I digress.

Sometimes I feel like the devil in disguise. “I teach people how to take other people’s money” is how I answer the “What do you do?” question. And that pretty much summarizes it. Marketing in a nutshell.

And sometimes it bothers me. “Well, you asked,” I replied to Dr Browning.

I often wonder what it must be like growing up Amish, people for whom frugality and happiness go hand-in-hand. Is it possible that we make fun of the people who happen to possess the very thing we are trying to buy?

Now don’t get me wrong. I really do not want to adopt such an austere way of life. But maybe there really is beauty in simplicity. Heck, the Amish always seem to have an unemployment rate hovering right around zero. They take care of one another in their little communities (which always have a small, white schoolhouse every two miles, the perfect commutable distance…on foot). They make or grow nearly everything they consume.

It’s a very strange economy. In their own little world, there is no government component. But there is also very little retail component. It’s as if each family is its own economy.

Of course, we cannot realistically all move to that place. And I have never heard of someone converting to the Amish faith, attesting to the fact that the Amish way of life has more negatives than it does positives.

But maybe, just maybe, we can all learn a little from them. Maybe we can all learn to reduce, reuse, recycle (whoa…you mean the Amish are green?!?). Maybe we can temper our insatiable materialistic appetites, and maybe Marketers can issue a little restraint in the planned obsolescence department. Maybe we can rein in our spending and not drive our economy with debt.

And maybe Dr Browning will learn to quit inviting me to the podium. Never hand the mic to a Marketer. He’ll try to sell you something every time

Dr “The Captain Has Turned On The Seat Belt Sign” Gerlich

Burgers and Beers

2 07 2011

First it was Starbucks. And now it’s Burger King and Sonic. Before long, we won’t have to go far to find a brewski. Because suddenly everyone’s selling them.

Of course, lingering puritanical thinking will have many people up in arms over this, but folks in other parts of the world have been able to get a Big Mac and a pint of the brewer’s art for years. Sometimes it takes a while for things to make it across the ponds.

Part of me wonders what took so long for fast food giants to finally figure this out over here, for it has been a missed opportunity. But another part of me wonders if it’s a reflexive response to market conditions. Which is another way of saying that these guys are trying to find a market advantage.

Of course, the very idea of fast food outlets selling beer to a car culture instantly raises red flags. It is quite the norm that up to 50% of a fast food restaurant’s sales are through a window. That alone means they cannot be serving beer to go, not matter what the customer entreats. “Yeah, I’d like a Double Whopper with cheese, fries, and a 44oz. Budweiser.” Sure. In your dreams.

In other words, plan on dining in.

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between the fast food burger joints and Starbucks’s foray into beer and wine. The former are food outlets that sell beverages as a secondary item, whereas the latter is exclusively a beverage shop. I have voiced my displeasure before about SBUX selling booze, and many of my students lambasted me (including one who…um…works for SBUX). My naysaying, though, has more to do with beer and wine detracting from coffee sales than it does with propriety, though.

But as for fast-food joints, what difference does it make if you wash down your burger with a Coke or a Bud?

Alcoholic beverages, in spite of a plethora of state and local licensing issues, still promise a healthy profit margin for their vendors. They are also a great way to significantly pad the bill. And while the beer margin may not be quite as high as it is for soft drinks (up to 90%), they do help set BK and Sonic apart from McDonald’s and other fast food eateries. All it takes is one person in the group wanting some suds to go with their burger, and the group may very well find itself eating BK Triple Stackers or SuperSonic Bacon Cheeseburgers instead of Quarter Pounders.

Watch for this: Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point notion is about to come into play. Once enough fast food outlets start selling beer, the rest will all be forced to follow, lest omission become a greater sin than co-mission. This will certainly challenge some chains, especially Chick-Fil-A (which has also taken great amounts of heat lately for not exactly being LGBT-friendly). While it is every business’ right to follow their own conscience, the market is a funny place. It doesn’t take much for an idea to tip and become the next expected norm. To not follow the latest whimsy is done at their own peril.

All Jimmy Buffett jokes aside (“It’s 5:00 somewhere, right?), this latest development in the burger biz is an interesting twist for sure, certain to raise American eyebrows not accustomed to booze and fast food, but one I expect to quickly become the norm.

But the beer snob in me hopes they can come up with something better than Budweiser. Because I think I would rather just drink water.

Wait. I think we’re talking about the same thing here.

Dr “Hold The Onion” Gerlich

Trial Offer

1 07 2011

My phone is filled with a variety of interesting apps. Weather. Shopping. QR and bar code readers. Sports scores. Social media. Games. You name it. Even the London Tube Map.

But until yesterday I never had an app that allowed me to following the play-by-play in one of the nation’s most-watched courtroom trials. Turns out that the Casey Anthony trial is so popular that the #1 and #4 for-purchase apps at iTunes are dedicated to this trial. No kidding. A Florida woman is accused of murdering her child, and suddenly everyone wants to know the score.

Well, call the witness for the defense, and let the record show that I stand in awe.

OJ Simpson may have once captivated a nation with his antics and legal maneuverings, but he suffered from the fact that he simply came along too early. And while Casey Anthony may have not planned her alleged scheme to coincide with the app generation, she is nevertheless one popular lady right now.

Even if she may never get a nickel from her notoriety.

The two apps are only $0.99 each, but once again, the enormous profit potential becomes apparent when you consider that possibly millions of these apps will be sold. It’s Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail all over again. There’s a market out there for the obscure, the weird, the bizarre. And you don’t necessarily have to charge a lot to make good bank.

But the academic in me wonders the purchase motives for this app. Is it simply to stay informed? Are we intrigued with the judicial process? Is the prosecuting attorney a star in waiting? Or do a whole bunch of us have a lurid fascination with potentially seeing a woman sentenced to death for a heinous crime?

I suspect the latter.

The apps allow us to watch streaming video, view pics, read testimony…pretty much see and hear everything that a fly on the wall would experience. Which means, of course, that the Casey Anthony trial will go down in history as a historic moment not so much in jurisprudence, but rather new and interesting ways to use apps. The door is open, and app programmers from henceforth will no doubt be leaving no stone unturned in their quest to create The Next Big App.

Because apps really are just little peep holes, when you think about it. Peep holes to places we cannot possibly be in the flesh, but have no problem viewing remotely. I can only imagine where these peep holes will appear next. But if enough of you are willing to pay me $0.99 apiece, I’ll be happy to set up an appcam in my office so you can watch me counting my money. Because this is the kind of killing I’d rather be doing.

Dr “Cha-Ching” Gerlich