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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Failure? Mistake? Lesson?

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An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field. — Niels Bohr

In recent years it’s become a business truism that failure is a path to success. The idea is that if you’re having failures you’re trying lots of things — tossing stuff against the wall to see what sticks — which should lead eventually to something that pays off big time. (In Silicon Valley this attitude is quite popular, as high-tech startups are especially iffy.)

There’s a problem with this notion: it isn’t exactly true. Owners whose first businesses fail are unlikely to try again. The collapse of a cherished enterprise can crush the first-timer. These failures destroy capital, upend job security and ruin reputations.

Just thinking about such scenarios can make a business owner’s heart rate go into overdrive.

But maybe we’re suffering from a bit of confusion about what people mean by failure. Much of what is called “failure” is simply “mistakes”. When we confuse the two, we hesitate to try things, even small things, for fear we’ll “fail” when often the worst that happens is we learn something useful. If we don’t make this distinction — between mistakes and failures — we’ll freeze up at the little challenges, and eventually our frozen selves shatter against a wall of defeat.

When scientists run an experiment and get a result they weren’t expecting, they don’t consider this “failure”; they think of it as “data”. To them, it’s all interesting. Artists experiment over and over, discarding most of their attempts, as they perfect new paintings or songs or comedy sketches.

Interesting outcomes are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down. — Elizabeth Gilbert

Nearly everything a business does is made of small steps. Most of these steps are developed through trial and error. Mistakes get made and corrected, and the business moves forward. It’s these little mistakes, not the huge terrible failures, that help us grow stronger and smarter at work. 

• “Take care of the ounces, and the pounds will take care of themselves.” Failures and mistakes are outcomes of risk. Failure comes from big risks; mistakes come from small ones. If we’re undaunted by small risks and we try to learn from them, the odds of long-term success get enhanced. How, then, should we approach risk in general, so as to take advantage of mistakes and avoid failures?

Don’t regard any one project as everything: even your business startup is just a chapter in the history of your career. It’s the career that matters, not its expression today. In fact, entrepreneurs who manage more than one business at a time have higher success rates than “serial” entrepreneurs who only work on one. Of course you’ll put your best effort into every portion of your work. But knowing that no one project can make or break you takes the pressure off, so you’ll make fewer panicky mistakes and suffer fewer failures. 

Don’t take it personally: This one’s hard, especially when we’ve just been brought down by a mistake at work or, worse, a startup failure. At that moment we’re tempted to consider ourselves as failures. But the project failed, not us; just because we made a mistake doesn’t mean we are a mistake.

Do a pre-mortem: Good sales reps anticipate every possible objection from a prospect and prepare strong answers for each. This technique works for any aspect of business. Begin by making a list of all the ways your startup — or just this month’s work project — can go wrong. Then think of several ways to fix each situation. 

Do a post-mortem: This is, of course, a highly useful exercise with projects that implode, but it’s also worthwhile to follow up on any problems you encountered during the roll-out of a winner. Don’t let all the back-slapping and glass-clinking distract you from itemizing the small problems that cropped up, and devising repairs … so they don’t become big problems later.

Keep your eye on the racetrack, not the wall: Professional race car drivers know that if you go into a skid, you mustn’t stare at the oncoming wall but instead focus on where you want to go. This reorients you toward driving instead of crashing, which increases the chances you’ll get out of the jam and continue the race.

Remember that half of all businesses are still in play after five years: It’s a myth that 80 percent of new firms wash out in 12 months. The odds favor you.

…Finally: As a wise man said, do not brace yourself for failure, but ready yourself for fulfillment.

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