Art is not what you see, but what you make others see. Edgar Degas
If you’ve ever found yourself working for a start-up or really small company – I’m talking less than 15 employees – then you’ve no doubt encountered the siren song filled dreams of a mammoth sized marketing budget.
“If only we were like P&G or Apple or Accenture,” the song goes, “with six, seven, yes even eight figure R&D and marketing budgets…we could blast our message on billboards and in every Google Ad possible…starlets would preen around our product in every episode of the best shows on Must See TV…we would have access to all of the research ever generated about our target customer and I could quit guessing when the CEO asks me what is the right next step….Man, our brand would be ubiquitous…customers across the country, even around the world would know how amazing our products are and…we would be inundated with sales…because they would love us.”
Yes, it would be amazing wouldn’t it Virginia? But be careful because as the Bible says, “where much is given, much is expected.” It’s enticing to believe that all of the money in the world would provide you with the absolutely complete and perfect understanding of your target consumers. Your war room would be filled with books (OK well not books but given the thunk factor of those PowerPoint decks when printed and dropped on the board room table, they might as well be) carefully crafted by only the best consultants detailing everything you never even dreamed you wanted to know about the habits of your customer. You would have hours of candid video footage which you would spend hours studying the minute details of freeze frames like Phil Jackson preparing for the big game. The best designers would be on speed dial and shower you with their most brilliant and most modern concepts.
Sounds like nirvana, right?
And yet, if that is what a massive marketing budget can provide, then what in the world happened to those poor schlubs over at Tropicana who arguably own the concept of fresh squeezed orange juice?
As Grant McCracken, pop cultural anthropoligist extraordinaire, explains, they were swayed by everything money could provide: the glitz AND the glamour! Those entrusted with this sacred brand allowed a so-called guru with the hippest eyewear you ever saw, run their brand right off the cliff.
What, you mean the iconic mouthwatering orange with the straw in it is so fraught with meaning that abandoning it for a sterile, generic looking, impossible to distinguish from the cheapest watered down so-called orange juice sitting at the bottom of the shelf package, would actually lead to a 20% decline in revenues in the critical first 3 months after launch? As our good friends over at Calculated Risk like to say, “Hoocoodanode??!” It’s amusing that Tropicana’s initial response to the flat-lined launch was that complaints came from a loyal vocal minority. A vocal minority? REALLY? You lose $33 million in revenues on top of a failed $35 million packaging redesign / launch campaign and you say a vocal minority caused you to stand up and pay attention? Sounds more like a full scale revolt of a significant portion of your customer base.
McCracken pulls no punches in his cutting critique of Peter Arnell – the so-called guru – and Massimo D’Amore, the Tropicana executive who sponsored the whole debacle. And Arnell’s response demonstrates an over-engineered thinking that only the brightest minds could produce. Consumers know what the juice looks like, Peter, the key is making them think they’re about to drink straight from the orange. No one I know could ever have imagined that they were freshly squeezing the juice by rotating your little orange cap. Talk about artifice.
The lesson from this story my friends is that no matter how large your budget, if you don’t ask the right people the right questions, you can expect similar results. And in corollary, the larger your budgetary spend, the more likely your spectacular failure will go down as a Harvard Business School case study of what not to do.
So remember, as one entrusted with a product brand story, you are an artist and your product is destined for the masses – your customers – so if you’re going to entrust your art to some guru, make sure they go out and talk to those same masses and actually LISTEN TO THEM. In fact, in today’s world of Social Media, for a lot less than what Arnell costs, you can learn more just by dipping your toes in conversations flowing around your brands each day. Why not strike up a conversation and see where it leads. Because while those same masses may not know art, they absolutely know what they like:
The public is the tribunal before which all art is judged – not the critics or the academies. The public is the artist’s only patron, and has certain fundamental rights. It will submit to education, and will respond to suggestion, but it will not be bullied. Walter J. Phillips
And to those iconoclastic designers out there who hold themselves above the masses? I can only say that mediocrity requires aloofness to preserve its dignity.
Next to come, an exploration of why competitors fail to act on customer opportunities in categories clearly demonstrating strong growth and significant innovation.