Retail or E-tail?

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As of this writing, the boom times that followed the Great Recession are still in full swing, with unemployment below 5 percent. Yet we see shuttered stores on Main Street. It’s as if our town never got the news. What gives?

E-commerce has transformed shopping habits, shifting attention from street-side retail and toward website e-tail. You can order nearly anything online — food, clothing, books and music, appliances and equipment — and have it delivered to your doorstep, no store visits needed, often for less than you’d pay at the mall. As a result, businesses have cut back on brick-and-mortar locations while Web retail surges.

Still, while it’s easy to order a dress online from JCPenney or Macy’s, it’s gotten harder to try it on first, as chains cut back on the number of outlets. The chief reason to visit a street store is to touch the merchandise; website images don’t quite get it. But lately some customers will visit stores, try stuff on, then go home and order the items cheaper from another company’s website.

As retail square footage shrinks and bandwidth expands, the tension between mail-order and in-store shopping opens up a window for e-tailers who can give patrons a real-world sense of product lines from a home screen. Brick-and-mortar retailers, too, are looking for ways to shift their stance in the new ballgame.

Online businesses have been innovating:

• Many clothing websites will send you items to try on at home.

• You can customize your order by size, color, features, etc., and thus access the entire product line — much more than a brick-and-mortar outlet can stock.

• Many e-tailers provide multiple views of products, and you can zoom in on the images for a more detailed examination.

• Online prescription eyeglass stores let you upload a photo of your face (or you can select an image of a face that resembles yours), click on prospective frames, and view them on the facial image to get a sense of how they’ll look on you in real life.

If you’re an online store owner or web developer, be sure to keep an eye on the technology as it evolves:

• 3-D computer and TV screens will become common, allowing you to replace flat product images with more lifelike ones.

• Some Virtual Reality headsets already allow customers to “walk through” online stores and examine merchandise in much more detail.

• Haptic (touch-sense) gloves will augment V-R headsets so your patrons can “feel” cloth, “heft” items to gauge their weight, and “touch” product surfaces.

• And who knows? Perhaps someday we’ll have “Smell-o-Vision”, along with humidity and temperature simulators, so we can enjoy the often-pleasing atmospheres of retail locations.

These technologies are burgeoning almost faster than we can write about them, so stay up with developments.

Meanwhile, if you’re a committed brick-and-mortar retailer, don’t despair. Advancing tech creates new opportunities for you as well:

• Empty stores mean lower rental costs, which reduces the price advantage of your e-commerce competitors. A shuttered store next to you is a chance to expand your retail operations simply by renting the spare footage and opening up a passageway between.

• Your retail store can promote your e-tail store. Some chains (Bed, Bath & Beyond, for example) encourage patrons to use store computers to order out-of-stock or specialty items directly from the chain’s warehouse. This protects the sale while getting customers into the habit of ordering from the retailer’s own website.

• Driverless vehicles will ease traffic, so getting to your store will be less of a hassle. These cars will need fewer parking spaces, reducing congestion while opening up acreage that downtown business groups can repurpose into, for example, parklike pedestrian avenues for shoppers.

• People like to meet and interact with other people in person, and your store can become a social locale when you add, say, a coffee bar or entertainment corner, or you can host designers, authors, and artists who conduct seminars, demos, and readings.

• Visiting your store becomes something of an event with a Virtual Reality system that teaches patrons how it’ll look and feel to use your products.

The world is transforming in ways we can barely foresee. Retail sales, too, will shift unpredictably. Shop owners and online vendors who keep their fingers on the pulse of that change — and who resist the temptation to sit back and rest on their laurels — will find ways to thrive. It won’t be easy, but it will be interesting … and, if you play it right, it’ll be profitable.

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UPDATE: Retail scene changing quickly

UPDATE: Retail outlet as shipping center (and shipping center as retail outlet?)

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How to Reduce Event Attendance

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The mistakes of the fool are known to the world, but not to himself. — Charles Caleb Colton

Most of us go to events from time to time — festivals, concerts, conventions, street fairs — and many of these get promoted by email. If you’re on a list for, say, a monthly swap meet, you’ll receive a notice in your Inbox from the promoter, and it’s often written in a breezy, upbeat and chatty style that’s sure to charm and attract customers.

Yes, making money is probably one of the main purposes of the promoter. No problem with that, of course. The trouble lies elsewhere. Here’s an example of what you might get:

“Okay, our regular meet is all set up for the end of the month! Get ready, because it’s gonna be a great one. Usual start time, but we’ll have some extra-special guest vendors that you’ll love. Admission is $20 this month because of extra expenses, but rest assured you’ll think it was worth more. We look forward to seeing all of you. Do come to the main tent and say hi.”

What’s wrong with it? … Yes, you in the back.

“There’s no date listed.”

Exactly. I’ve lost count of how many announcements I’ve received that bubbled with excitement about an event but forgot to mention the date. Or the time. Or the address. Or the price.

The above sample omits nearly every particular. This is surprisingly common. Promoters seem to assume that their list members already know the recurring stuff, so why bore them with the same details?

Here’s a why: List members themselves often need the basic information. Your regulars are a motley bunch, some of whom have not been with the group long, or have poor memories, or have always caught a ride with someone else until now. Etc etc.

Here’s another why: Your regulars may want to forward the email to friends and new recruits, but they won’t if it’s an embarrassment of non-information.

If the promoter fails to list everything anyone might need to know about the event, attendance will suffer — not merely from missed opportunities for marketing to newbies, but from regulars unsure about the date or time or address or cost. Instead of the hoped-for increase in patronage, the turnout drops.

A big difference between professionals and amateurs is that pros tend to be methodical and detail-oriented, whereas amateurs are in it for the fun, confusing enthusiasm for competence. If there’s money involved, the event organizer needs to behave like a professional. But if thoroughness makes them impatient, they’ll hit “Send” too early … and prove they’re an amateur.

When it’s a one-person operation, that person will write the announcement, and then proof-read it … if she or he has time. The problem is that most amateur writers think if they understand what they’re writing, so will everyone else. They believe they’re communicating simply because they’re typing.

I’ve received unclear or incomplete email announcements, replied asking for clarification, and been scolded for not reading the email. This tells me the promoter sincerely believes all the info is included even when it isn’t. This illusion can be very persistent; amateurs fall prey to it all the time.

Also, it’s extremely poor practice for promoters to get huffy with their customers about anything, especially communication problems, which could easily be the promoter’s fault.

If organizers simply assume they’ve announced events properly, they’ll never connect the dots between incompetent emails and lost gate. Besides, with so many variables — weather, time of year, competition, economic conditions — who can prove that it was the weak email announcement that put the brakes on attendance?

The announcement is one of the variables you can control. It is, after all, a part of marketing, which is critical to the success of your event. It’s hard to imagine it not affecting attendance.

SOLUTIONS:

Always include the basic details:

—Date and time (“Saturday, March 12, 8:00 a.m.”)

—Event and location (“Monthly Swap Meet, 123 Main St, Anytown”)

—Cost and benefits (“$20 gets you admission and a free raffle ticket.”)

—Any special notes (“Be sure to bring a warm jacket” / sunscreen / bug spray / box lunch / etc)

If you must issue an update or correction, be sure to include the basic details again, revised as appropriate. Do these things and it becomes easy for people to pop the event into their calendars … and forward the message, with its complete event info, to those they want to invite.

Always write for the first-timer. Read your own writing as if you were a newbie who doesn’t know the least thing about your event. This exercise can show you what you’re omitting that you’ve assumed everyone else knows. (And you’d be surprised how much the regular attendees don’t know about what’s going on.) Assume that your list members are like students in a classroom, where most of them aren’t paying attention. Be clear, and always include complete event information, so a beginner — and any regular who’s unsure about the latest event particulars — will have no doubts or hesitations about when and where to attend, what to bring, etc.

Always have someone else check your writing. Well-constructed sentences give off a professional air, while goofs and awkward phrases reek of amateurism. It’s easy to scan your own work and see no problems: you wrote it, it looks good to you, it must be getting the point across. We’re all a bit blinded by the majesty of our own verbiage. But be warned: our writing, unchecked, can and will rise up to humiliate us, the lovely words betraying confused or embarrassing meanings we never intended. Meanwhile, punctuation and spelling mistakes can slip past the best of us. A second pair of eyes will catch a lot of potential problems.

Don’t be the one left standing in the middle of a sparsely attended event, shrugging his shoulders — “But I told them about it!” — oblivious to the amateur mistakes he made. Let somebody else make those errors. Get your email promotions in hand … and watch your gate improve.

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How Positive Thinking Works … and Doesn’t

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Once you get past physics, reality is entirely negotiable. Taylor Pearson

Positive thinking — or visualizations, or affirmations, or “imaging”, as they call it in sports — is an approach to problem-solving where the user imagines, or envisions, the successful outcome of a project. 

It’s widely used in athletics, hypnosis, psychological counseling, and in some religions. Professions with payoffs that are hard to predict — sales, sports, the arts — often dabble in this approach. Business, where results really matter, is an arena where visualization techniques might offer great potential.

The theory is that outcomes — both good and bad — are controlled by our thoughts rather than merely by environment or genetics. You may have a difficult boss or co-worker, but you could imagine yourself getting along smoothly with this person — and, if you do it correctly, your mental pictures would result in an improved relationship. If your sales numbers are poor, you might visualize future reports with strong numbers, and somehow that would translate into better results down the line. Or you might “see yourself” as a slender and fit person, and this would cause excess weight to melt away and a rack of abs to appear.

At the simplest level, this process has been called “skull practice” — you’re simply rehearsing in your mind the behaviors and/or results you want so that, in real life, your nervous system automatically seeks out resources and performs actions that lead to your objective, and good results follow.

The most important assertion is that this kind of mental rehearsal can affect a much wider variety of outcomes than we normally believe can be altered — personality, health, financial situation, friendships, love life, etc etc. Sure, you can rehearse a speech in your head, but can you rehearse a change in your personality or bank account? The theory says yes.

Really? Can this stuff work? Can we use positive imaging to improve our results in the workplace and elsewhere? Or is it all a bunch of malarkey? 

In America, visualization descends from a late-19th-century philosophy called New Thought, which taught that the spirit of God is in everything, and that failure to understand this leads to wrong thinking and illness. New Thought also asserted that “thoughts are things” that can generate new matter out of imagination. In the 20th century, several popular books moved the conversation along: Think and Grow Rich, The Power of Positive Thinking, Psycho-Cybernetics, Creative Visualization, and, recently, The Secret.

You can guess that there might be a certain amount of baggage and confusion accompanying these ideas. The entire field has an aura of magic, of the miraculous, that can turn off practical people. On one side we find enthusiasts making extraordinary claims, and on the other we have skeptics who believe the whole movement is a bunch of charlatans spouting unscientific rubbish. 

True, there are plenty of visualization coaches out there who are overweight. And studies have suggested that career criminals have strong self-esteem. On the other hand, formal research points to something useful:

  1. Science hints at benefits from “positive thinking”: “ . . . some evidence suggests positive thinking might have a strictly biological impact as well.” And it can improve health through stress reduction
  2. Emotional stress can influence gene expression: Soldiers with PTSD showed changes in the way their DNA controlled cellular activity. This opens the door for the possibility of changing ourselves at the genetic level through stress reduction and/or positive thinking. “ . . . it may be possible that positive thinking, through some physiological byproducts that, let’s say, reduce stress or lower blood pressure levels, could impact gene expression.” Your very DNA, then, may be malleable, and thinking might be the tool.
  3. Optimism boosts health: “ . . . people who are optimistic about their health tend to do better.

To add to the confusion, the literature on visualization and positive thinking is a mishmash of prescriptions, and some books contradict others. Here are a few of the many ways positive thinking has been presented:

–Imagine what you want, one time, and it will come to you

–Imagine what you want, over and over, until you get it

–Imagine what you want and make it intensely attractive

–Imagine what you want, then imagine the opposite, then choose what you want

–Imagine what you desire, then want, believe, and expect that it is true

–Imagine what you want and never allow bad thoughts to enter your mind

–Imagine what you want and then resolve any contradictions that arise in your feelings

At least they all involve imagining what you want. That’s a starting point.

Let’s try to remove the chaff. Then maybe we can get to the wheat.

First, there is what I call the “Stupid Brain Theory” of positive thinking. Basically, the theory is that “whatever we dwell upon we draw to ourselves,” so that if we focus on the problems we’re having, the problems get bigger. This is based on the idea that the mind is attracted to anything with strong emotional content. Why else would we fuss and worry about some issue, only to have it turn out badly? We must, perversely, have been attracted to the very thing that causes us pain. Therefore we should counteract all negative thoughts with positive ones. (This notion carries weight with evangelicals — many of whom are drawn to positive thinking — since it can be explained as “tests from God”.) 

More likely, we wallow in failures because we don’t realize there are better options. We try to make the best of a bad situation, and end up with … a modified bad situation. We’re not stupid; we’re just ignorant of the possibilities.

Then there’s “The Secret Theory”, which basically states that the great people of history all practiced positive thinking, but for some reason this tremendous power has been kept away from the mass of humanity. (That is, until the book The Secret came out, of course.) But the idea that billions of people have been so foolish and limited as to have failed after all this time (and access to the Internet) to find for themselves this wonderful tool … well, it beggars belief. 

It’s much more probable that we’re simply brought up from birth to “know our place” and to refrain from daring to imagine more. As well, many difficult roadblocks crop up in our lives where it’s hard to imagine workarounds, so that we sometimes adopt the stance that “it can’t be helped”, and we give up.

Also there’s the “Try Hard Theory” that says you’ll get everything you want if you just want it badly enough and are willing to work super-hard (and do your affirmations every day for 30 minutes). It’s possible this is true, but it’s also a distressingly difficult method. The whole point of visualizations is to get what we want, and it kind of cancels the benefit if we must suffer and struggle endlessly in the process.

Now let’s see if we can distill the core principles — the useful stuff:

The evidence:

  • Stresses of life sometimes leave us with pessimistic attitudes about our potential
  • Parents and authority figures often straitjacket us into their systems of struggle
  • Modern technology opens up possibilities for solving nearly every human problem
  • Optimistic attitudes are correlated with good outcomes
  • Sports stars, business leaders, and great artists often swear to the benefits of visualizing

The process:

  • See in your mind the outcome you desire
  • Choose and expect that outcome
  • Allow the outcome to arrive as it will
  • Refine the process to suit you

All you need see in your mind’s eye is the result you want. (If, instead of visualizing “I am worth four million dollars”, you focus on the process — i.e., “First I get a job, then I make money to invest, then I peel some off to start a business, then I hire an accountant …” — you’ll become lost in details and never get to the result.) 

Then you make what you desire into a choice, not a wish; this will charge your mind with the expectation of obtaining the result. You’ll start to notice yourself taking an interest in things you previously ignored; this is your mind running its search for the contents of the result you’ve chosen.

In fact, the act of daring to choose what you want, despite the apparent odds, may be key to the entire process. We yearn for what isn’t ours, but we choose what belongs to us. Perhaps it’s the simple act of choosing that makes things possible, that brings our desires to fruition.

It’s important not to limit yourself to what you think is practical or logical. This kind of worry will cause you to edit your desires until they resemble what you merely assume is available, and you’ll be back where you started. There’s a big difference between “It can’t be done” and “I don’t yet know how to do it”. You’ll be surprised at what is attainable.

By the way, if you imagine “I’m great at sales” or “I’m a terrific administrator” but you still have an old belief like “I’m not allowed to have my own success” or “I’m a bad person”, the old attitude will sabotage the new one. So address the deepest concerns first, then work your way down the list to the smaller items (like that Tesla roadster you have your eye on).

As you practice, you’ll find that some approaches work better than others. Perhaps bedtime is a good moment for you to do visualizing, or maybe the morning is better; it could be that reciting aloud your affirmations works well — or, instead, silence is golden. Try various ways and see what works for you. Every brain is different, so tailor the process to fit yours. And there is a TON of literature on the topic, so there’s plenty of counsel. (See above for links to the most famous works.)

The great lesson of modernity is that nearly anything is possible. The old days of restrictive tribal loyalties and self-abnegation are gone, replaced by endless possibilities opening up for us in the future. Rather than staying trapped in the old attitudes of scarcity and impossibility, our task now is to engage that future. And this is the moment when visualization — affirmations, “positive thinking”, call it what you will — can serve us as we create wonders. 

A wise person said, “When you take a stand [for something in your life], the world will arrange itself to agree with you.” You might as well try it and see.

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UPDATE: “We can make ourselves more or less vulnerable by how we think about things.

UPDATE: Choose your role in life

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Unpredictably Rational

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“Imagine that you’re an animal in the jungle ten thousand years ago, and all of a sudden you see a tiger. . . . It evokes an emotion, and then you just get an action plan that says, ‘Run as fast as you can!’ Now today we don’t have tigers anymore, but we still have emotions. And they control us in many ways.” — Dan Ariely

We’re going to talk about retail sales in a moment, so bear with me.

Dan Ariely is a psychology professor at Duke University who wrote the book Predictably Irrational, which points up how our mental rules of thumb often lead us astray. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve listened to some of Ariely’s lectures and interviews. Also I’ve read related books by Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Gilbert. (From them I learned how boringly normal is my brain, in terms of being fooled by irrational assumptions.)

Ariely presents ideas that are interesting and innovative. Now and then, however, he betrays a certain attitude among many in the fields of economics and psychology. Can we call it a bias? It’s the idea that careful thought is superior to instincts and feelings, and that modern humans need to upgrade their mental skills so they can make decisions better than those offered by our primitive emotions.

I’ve critiqued this attitude elsewhere, to counter the idea that people are irrational when they fear losses more than they desire gains. (An algorithm can play Blackjack all day and lose millions on paper to no effect, but if you do this at a casino you can end up being shot at by loan sharks. So, no, it’s not wrong for a living being to be extra-cautious about the downside.) Now it’s popped up in connection with sales tactics, so it’s time to say something again.

Ariely’s researchers asked customers at a car dealership what they were giving up by purchasing a new vehicle. “What would you not be able to do?” In other words, they were asking about the “opportunity costs” of buying a car. Most responders were flummoxed. They replied that they’d no longer be able to buy a different make or model. “What we would have wanted people to say,” suggested Ariely, “is that ‘This would be three weeks of vacation over the next three years and two hundred lattes and seventy books.’ And so on.”

…Say what? People are dopes because they haven’t considered all the ways they could have spent thirty thousand dollars instead of on a car? Like a vacation?!? But cars are essential to most people. They won’t trade basic transportation for a trip to the Bahamas! It’s like asking, “What could you do with all that money you spend on food?” Nobody’s gonna starve to death to pay for a vacation. So the correct answer really is “I could spend it on another make of car.” Opportunity costs don’t much matter if you’d never allocate the money to a completely different product.

We can argue about whether this item or that is an opportunity cost. The main point is, there’s a notion in academic circles that people are basically stupid around money.

Ariely cites an experiment involving parking meters. People were asked whether, if they needed a quarter to put in the meter, they’d more likely accept one from a passerby who charges them a dollar for it … or from someone who charges a buck to run to the bank and get the change for them. Most people would prefer the latter — apparently a bit of legwork offsets the gouging. But Ariely notes that both offers cost 75 cents, so it shouldn’t matter which one people accept.

It shouldn’t … but it does! And there’s a good reason — people hate being humiliated by a person who seems to take advantage of their plight. So it’s not just about the net fiscal cost; it’s also about social standing, something vital to most humans.

(One workaround is to accept the first offer — a quarter for a dollar — and thank the stranger for solving an awkward problem for so low a price. This cancels the humiliation factor … and you get your quarter much faster than from the guy who runs to the bank.)

Economists aren’t the only ones who tend to look down at others’ buying habits. Sales reps soon learn that folks have odd quirks that can be exploited by the sales team. Before long, reps may feel contempt for their own customers.

Again, it’s useful to realize that people make decisions that only seem odd because we’re not seeing things from their angle. A few points to remember: 

  • Customers are aware of opportunity costs, just not the ones economists think they should consider. So go ahead and upsell them on the higher trim package. Just know they won’t starve to pay for it.
  • Customers will give up time and money to avoid being perceived as weak. They’ll turn down good offers if presented — as with the dollar-for-quarter scenario above — in an unseemly manner. 

It turns out your customers aren’t dumb after all. It’s just that their motives are more complex than we suspected.

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Uber vs. the Taxis

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Taxicab companies want the world to stay exactly as it is, which is not actually good for anyone, to just say, ‘The way that we’re gonna run is the way that we were running in the 1950s, and that’s the way we’re gonna be running in 3000.’ — Reid Hoffman

How can Uber possibly survive? The private driving service, now a worldwide phenom, faces huge obstacles from taxi cartels, suspicious regulators and anxious voters who wonder: is Uber a good thing or some sort of business conspiracy to make a profit by disrupting the established transportation system?

Maybe it’s both.

Granted, Uber’s cheaper, quicker ride service — a car within five minutes and less than $2 per mile instead of roughly $5 for taxis — threatens government-approved taxi operators, who worked hard to obtain their medallions in a restricted market space. Granted, the news has now and then carried garish reports of Uber drivers attacking their passengers. Granted, it takes weeks to certify a taxi driver, while Uber drivers can accept passengers within days. Granted, Uber — and Lyft, Uber’s smaller competitor — threaten a unionized way of life by offering part-time, flex-time work opportunities. 

But Uber and Lyft provide a service that’s so compelling, it overcomes all objections:

• Per-mile costs are much cheaper than taxis. One driver I spoke with showed me a couple of typical fares he got, and they both worked out to about $1.50 per mile. Even if the average charge were $2.00 or $2.50 per mile, it would still cost half what an official taxi charges.

• Uber has a business incentive to process applicants efficiently, but its certification requirements are strict. Taxi drivers, meanwhile, must wait weeks because their unions aren’t in a hurry to add new drivers, who push down pay rates. Likewise, government accreditation bureaus rarely have a reason to hurry.

• Once on the job, Uber drivers are continuously rated by their passengers. Any driver whose rating drops below 4 out of 5 is subject to suspension. But the drivers also get to rate the passengers! A difficult Uber user will get bad marks and have trouble finding a ride. Thus everyone involved has an incentive to be polite and cooperative. Try getting that from a taxi service.

• Uber and Lyft offer cheap solutions to congestion, swarming quickly to where they’re needed while reducing the number of private vehicles parked on streets or clogging traffic. The service helps low-income, elderly and disabled users who can’t afford taxis. And passengers give it high marks. Local governments find all this irresistible. Taxi cartels keep losing the arguments.

• The ride-sharing market creates jobs. These days, with a staggering recession in the rear-view mirror and automation horning in on all sides, it’s harder and harder to get a steady full-time job. For the under-employed, Uber and Lyft step in and offer as many hours (or as few) as a worker can handle. The pay isn’t great, and there are no bennies, though with practice drivers can learn tricks of the trade and improve their take-home. But the service offers a flexible way to add to a driver’s bottom line, all the way up to full-time work. It’s hard for politicos to say no to that.

Any one of these makes a compelling argument in favor of the ride-sharing industry. All of them together make it seem unstoppable. 

Still, there are pitfalls. Unions and taxi cartels and governments may yet find ways to suppress this nascent marketplace, to pull its monkey wrench back out of the bureaucratic machine.

But the greatest danger may lie within the corporate offices of Uber itself. Its leaders have been accused of arrogance, of flouting the law, and of cutting driver net pay. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn and a high-tech venture capitalist, believes Uber should tone down its aggressive approach with regulators:

The company tends to be very combative. . . . [Regulators] may be slow to change, they may be risk-averse, but their goal is a mission of protecting society. And so you should interface with them on that channel more than on the ‘Just get out of my way, I’m innovating.’ — Reid Hoffman

Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft have checked off all three main requirements for a successful business in the modern age:

1. Great product — A cheap ride in five minutes!

2. Great marketing — Both Uber and Lyft have branded themselves ingeniously, the word-of-mouth is tremendous, and all the media attention gives ride-sharing tons of free publicity.

3. Great fulfillment — The app is easy to use, payment is handled automatically, and the cars are reliable and clean.

Uber may yet shoot itself in the foot and limp off into history. More likely, though, is that the ride-sharing company will be remembered as the front line in a phalanx of businesses — Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Angie’s List — that attack the limitations of an aging corporate infrastructure.

We may be witnessing the decline of the standard 40-hour job, replaced with work that adapts to workers’ schedules, responds quickly to changes in consumer demand, and automatically rewards excellence and civility.

The Uber/Lyft revolution is hurtling toward us like a fleet of rebellious vehicles, and in each car sits … the future.

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UPDATE: Consumers wrest control from government

UPDATE: How Uber got a city council to back off

UPDATE: Uber’s peaceful revolution

UPDATE: Driverless L.A. Taxis at 25c/mi

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Great Product, Not-so-Great Marketing

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Ever been in a conversation with several people and you remember a story that’s perfect for the topic at hand? And you can’t wait to tell it? The group is lively, people are chiming in one after another, and by the time you can get a word in, the talk has moved on to other topics. Still, you insist on telling the story. And it falls flat.

It’s Spring 1977, and I’m in a movie theatre. A commercial for an upcoming film — a “trailer” — appears onscreen. It’s all explosions and weapons fire and hurtling spaceships and strange alien creatures and weird robots. I was totally hooked. I had to see it. When it opened I was among the first in line. The movie was “Star Wars”, and it was everything the trailer had promised and more. I saw it five times in the first week and many times thereafter. That first trailer, with its invitation to hyperactive adventure — not to mention vivid images drawn from the many sci-fi books I’d read as a kid — totally captivated me. As history shows, I was but one in a ravenous audience of millions.

Decades later I saw another trailer for the latest sci-fi flick, and it, too, was jam-packed with the same rush of action and quick cuts. This time, though, I had a completely different response: “Yeah, we’ve seen this a hundred times. But what the hell is the movie about?” 

The film was “John Carter”, and apparently it was based on the old Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure novels about a man who’s transported to Mars, where he gets caught up in a civil war. But the trailer was a dizzy mess that left me with “Huh?” I decided to wait for the DVD.

The film flopped so badly it shook the Disney studio and caused a storm of criticism and second guessing in the media. CEO Robert Iger had to issue strict directives to his staff not to start pointing fingers in public at each other.

Months later, not sure what to expect, I screened “John Carter” for myself. To my surprise, I was delighted with it. The story was a classic rollicking adventure. The actors performed ably, and there was strong chemistry — and comic banter — between the two leads. (The heroine, played by Lynne Collins, might have sashayed out of a sizzling Boris Vallejo fantasy painting.) Effects and animation were top-notch. Production values were high: “The money was up on the screen,” as they say. The music was gorgeous and compelling. In short, the film carried me away to a romantic fantasy adventure on the Martian plains. 

This movie should have been a huge hit. What went wrong? Fingers pointed at everything from the film itself (“a bit cheesy”) to the lead, Taylor Kitsch (“stolid and dull”). Those accusations rang false to me, given my experience viewing it. And others suggested the problem lay in the marketing.

For one thing, the working title had been “John Carter of Mars”, but the Disney brass — stung by the recent flop of their animated feature “Mars Needs Moms” — renamed it simply “John Carter”. This took away much of the huge sci-fi audience, especially those who knew and admired the famous source material.

Recently I chatted with someone who’d been involved in distribution of “John Carter”, and he said flatly, “The marketing director didn’t know what she was doing.” Interesting. 

I kept looking. Turns out both the marketing chief and the studio head were new, and neither had ever before worked in film. Uh-oh. Meanwhile the director, Andrew Stanton, had lately moved across the hall from a hugely successful career directing animated features for Pixar. “John Carter” was his first essay in live action. Hmm.

Granted, “Carter” required more than a thousand animation shots, so Stanton wasn’t exactly the wrong choice. And, judging from my own experience, the resulting movie was well made and entertaining. But Stanton’s was the biggest name in the production, and he encountered a studio power vacuum. He ended up calling the marketing shots.

His idea for advertising was to revive the fast-action flurry of quick cuts like those game-changing “Star Wars” theatre trailers. He wanted the audience to relive his own youthful excitement — and that of anyone else who could remember back thirty-five years — or discover it anew if they were young enough. He wanted the thrill of the “Star Wars” promos to waft over his own film.

There were three problems with this idea: (1) anyone old enough to relive that thrill was now probably too old for the film’s demographic; (2) anyone young enough had already seen hours of such action sequences (*yawn*) in movie trailers; and (3) the film suffered from pre-release bad press, but Stanton plowed ahead, his marketing strategy unchanged. Disaster ensued.

In other words, the movie’s promotional campaign was like a great old story Stanton just had to tell, but the crowd had moved on. 

There’s talk of rebooting the John Carter series under another production team. That’s kind of sad, since the first film was terrific, while its biggest problem was the promotion. 

Let’s review:

• DON’T let a strong department push around a weak department

• DON’T hire inexperienced people to run marketing

• DON’T let your artists, even the superstars, make business decisions

• DO step in when staff is squabbling

• DO let everyone have input

• DO let department heads win arguments involving their own turf

Of course, it’s easy to Monday-morning quarterback a failed launch. And, as Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman said about predicting Hollywood hits, “Nobody knows anything.” There’s no good way, with any given film, to tell exactly which part of the moviemaking process — the story, the acting, the directing, the cinematography, and of course the marketing — will make the biggest contribution to success or failure. In a print ad you can alter a single word and response rates may change enormously. How much more tenuous must be the decisions made in promoting a film via its trailer?

And there’s always that ineffable something that can empower a work of art to capture the public’s imagination. Besides, many things happen to a movie offstage, things that can change everything, things we never find out about.

But, people! There’s no sense in spending hundreds of millions on a movie production if the marketing department is on vacation. Let the director direct, and let marketing market.

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