Steve Jobs: A Model Failure

October 25th, 2011

As a marketer, as a consumer, as someone who appreciates genius and beautiful design – as a human being – I was tremendously saddened by the death of Steve Jobs.

Every homage to him, every video, every shrine feels right and well-deserved.  But there is another side of Steve Jobs that is important, as well.

Steve Jobs was a failure.   Not once but several times over.   How about the Apple III?  It was so poorly designed that Apple suggested owners pick it up and drop it a few inches when it stopped working.

Or Lisa?  Now that was a spectacular failure.  Though significant in many respects, the grossly overpriced machine survived for about 18 months before it  was discontinued.  Apple ultimately dumped 2,700 Lisas into a Utah landfill to capture a tax write-off on the unsold inventory.apple lisa.jpg

That was, of course, after Apple had spent $50 million on developing Lisa.

Oops.

But of course, the ultimate Jobs “failure” was getting unceremoniously shoved out of his own company in 1985 by a more politically-astute John Sculley – a big-company executive.

And after getting dumped by Apple, NeXT didn’t do so well, either.

On and on.  Over and over.

“We Americans have a terrible habit of distilling stories of our great men and women into simplified and boring sound bites of success while ignoring the long, crooked, difficult, brave roads they took to realize that success,” says Augie Ray, author of a wonderful blog post called The Failure of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.  “We like to believe that success is what defines the American spirit, but the truth is the opposite:   failure is what defines the people who achieve greatness.”

I’ve been thinking about how many of us could or would have “come back” from the truly crushing (and very public) failures Jobs endured.  Thrown out of your own company?  A spectacular product failure?  His story is obviously unique, but size these disasters down to something that could happen to any of us and ask yourself what you would do.

How would you feel? Could you still be a leader, a seeker?

This is a dislocating time for many, and everything seems weird.  I would advise the average executive as follows:  be certain of what you care about, do something about it, and stay focused on what’s really important.  Know your story.  Believe in your story.  And just keep going.

When talking about getting booted out of Apple, Jobs once said, “Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick.  Don’t lose faith.”

No one could have said it better or with more credibility.

———————————-

A version of this post was originally published on the Marketing Executive Networking Group‘s blog, MENGBlend.

Will Donald Trump’s personal brand take a hit from all his recent tomfoolery?

Check out my second blog for the post, TRUMP IS JUST BEING TRUMPY.

Is Santa the best marketer ever? Perhaps.

Consider the evidence:

Long-term reputation management. No steroid use or bogus investment schemes here.  Ever.   

Take Coca-Cola with its 80-year investment in the big guy.  Do you think that Coke worries that a YouTube video will surface, showing 7-year-old girls making lead-laden toys in the Korean outpost of Santa’s Workshop Inc.? Not likely. 

And then there’s the third rail: do you think that Mrs. Claus has ever found “hundreds of texts” between Santa and that dumb blonde the Easter Bunny married? Or that’s she’s had to accompany her husband to the hospital for alcohol poisoning (paging Charlie Sheen – again)?

No, no and no.  Santa is one reliable dude. And he appears to do what’s right even when no one is looking.

Brand promise and the “continuous connected experience.” No matter where you go, you get the same reinforcing message from and about @SantaClaus.  Movies, television, email, social media, online video, radio, snail mail, retail – it doesn’t matter.   He has a booming voice, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he brings good stuff. 

And the other thing is… even if you bop from one medium to the other, you won’t lose your place.  Forrester calls this the continuous connected experience.  Santa is suggesting you be prepared to deliver your own in 2011.

Engagement.  Is there any experience more anticipated than Santa’s arrival?  And how about expectations met and exceeded? That’s unless you’ve been bad, of course, in which case you should consult the Terms and Conditions.

Accurate, On-Time Delivery.  Neither WikiLeaks, nor Chilean mining disasters, nor 0% interest rates will keep Santa from delivering the goods on Christmas Eve.  Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24.  Every year. And the idea of getting your neighbor’s gift by mistake is simply inconceivable.

Supply Chain Management.  You have to admire the man’s ability to manage his vendors, handle inventory, move the merch and turn on a dime.  Your kid decides at the last minute that she wants a Wii instead of the bike that Santa has already bought and loaded on the sleigh?

The Wii will be under the tree, for sure.

Never any hidden charges. There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers. There are no pending FTC rules in the pipeline. No small print.  Just because you get one set of skis, doesn’t mean that you’ve “agreed” to receive a new set every month (along with the bill). No nickel and diming. No charge for the second bag.

Santa’s pricing policies appears just perfect, in every product category ever invented.  And shipping is always free.

Brand advocacy. Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa and tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents.  Even adults will sometimes tell each other what they want from Santa.  The dude’s got an army of advocates carrying his message each and every year, and everyone’s happy to do it.

Wow!  That’s gonna be a lot of “Likes” on Facebook.  A lot.

No invasive pat-downs.  Do you remember leaving cookies and milk out for Santa, and then sneaking down the stairs just in time to see him putting your presents under the tree? Well, when he saw you, did he beckon you over, force you through a machine and feel up your naughty bits?  Or when he came down your chimney, did your parents do these things to him before letting him into your living room?

TSA does not stand for “Total Santa Aggression.” Personal respect is important to ol’ Kris Kringle.

Returns and Exchanges.  No problem.  While one of Santa’s elves may ask you to accompany him to the mall, that’s a small price to pay for better loot.

Long-term view of the customer relationship. Santa is committed to lifetime value.  If you’re a kid, he wants you to tell your parents and your grandparents and your teachers all about what you want.  He wants you to post what he gave you on Facebook.  He wants to take a picture with you and your friends at the mall.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.

Santa: the ultimate “circle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization. If you ask Santa for an iTouch, you’re going to get an iTouch. You might also get underwear and dental floss (paging my childhood), but he will be sure that your music itch is scratched. And if you state a preference, Santa is also highly likely to deliver an iTouch in the color of your choice. With the accessories you mumbled something about last March.

He invites you to be a vital part of his brand and help make the world a better place.  Be nice, get your gift. Be naughty, and you’re on your own. No anonymous troll behavior on the Web, no TMZ stories, no threatening or yelling. Everyone knows the rules, the rules don’t change and there are big rewards for all. Or not.

Brand benefits powerful enough to overcome controversy. Santa has a problem that few other brands ever experience: that is, some people don’t believe he exists! You may not like Red Bull, or Microsoft, or Kim Kardashian, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet.  And yet, Santa transcends even this existential challenge. Even those who say they “know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand. Name me a pizza chain or a department store or search engine who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, customer service support…), but you get the idea.

I did think of one problem area this year: money management.  In his zeal to delight his customers, Santa does sometimes buy things he can’t really afford.  His heart’s in the right place, though, and I think a little executive coaching might do the trick.  I am confident that he will want to change once he understands the problem.

And so, as yet another December passes, perhaps we should all look to #Santa for guidance in the coming year. After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and a new, devoted customer is born every minute. I think most of us would be happy with that.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Marketing Executive Networking Group’s blog, MENGBlend.

Larry King held a 2-hour telethon on June 21 to raise funds for those impacted by the BP oil spill – Disaster in the Gulf: How You Can Help.

Maybe I’m missing something, but… am I the only one who doesn’t understand this?

The spill was caused by a commercial entity that the universe agrees is 100% responsible, the U.S. government has vowed to hold said entity to its promise of paying for the clean-up and for losses incurred by all affected parties, and BP itself has agreed to do same.

Now I’m not saying that BP will or won’t actually do this (or that its version of reimbursement would match yours or mine), but this telethon isn’t saying “We know BP’s 100% responsible, but we don’t believe it’ll come through so we’re doing this just in case” – it’s just your regular old telethon to raise money.

But why? Why are we raising money? Why are television watchers – many of whom cannot afford to donate – being asked to donate in the first place? Larry King said that “the point of this effort is to get immediate relief to the people and wildlife who are in urgent need,” and that “the telethon’s proceeds go directly to relief organizations.” Why isn’t BP being forced to provide “immediate relief?”

I worry that, in a perverse way, this kind of activity makes us immune – numb – to disaster and tragedy. Something happens? No need to look too closely: let’s just raise money. Let’s get a bunch of celebrities to look soulfully into the camera and ask for cash, while we view a dying, oil-blackened bird in split screen. I worry that this makes Americans feel as though we’re doing something – we sent in our $20 bucks, therefore we are good people who care and we can move on.

Dennis Quaid, Cameron Diaz, Mariah Carey and Jeremy Piven take donations at the Gulf telethon

But can we? Are we doing any of the heavy lifting that could actually change anything, or help people? Those impacted by Hurricane Katrina are still suffering and basic infrastructure remains thin in New Orleans: where are we? Where is the outrage about how deepwater drilling continues as we speak, with no specific plan for the industry to create tools that will help it avert and address disasters in the future? Where is the outrage that BP is trying to block journalists’ access to the beaches, or skimmer boats from other countries? Why is it acceptable that individuals appear to be picking up the slack for a global corporation? These should be the items we’re all talking about, not what Justin Bieber has to say over a cheesy soundtrack.

And I worry, too, about the effect on an organization’s sense of responsibility. How does this phenomenon impact a company’s commitment to building trust in the marketplace? If BP’s actions are acceptable – and we make them acceptable by dialing an 800 number flashing on the screen and putting $10 on our credit cards – why wouldn’t a company conclude that it will not be held 100% accountable for its actions? Whether willfully or passively, why wouldn’t an organization do the minimum, or something close to it, and wait for us to blunt or even wash away its responsibility?

It’s easy to pound one’s chest and demand that “those responsible” do more, but I would suggest that, by our own actions, we may be empowering these same responsible parties to do less. There’s no guidebook that tells an organization exactly what reputable and trustworthy behavior is – society does that. Stakeholders – like you, me and Larry King – do that.

Where do you want to set the bar?

————————

A version of this post also appears on http://reputationgarage.com.

Is Santa the best marketer ever?

Think about it:

Long-term reputation management: No Tiger Woods problems here. Ever.  Do you think that Coca-Cola worries that it might go to sleep one night and wake up to find a sex tape of Santa on the Web? Have you ever noticed that the whole “Mommy kissing Santa Claus” business never seems to go past a certain point (paging Charlie Sheen…)?  Nope, not gonna happen.  Santa is one reliable dude.

Brand promise and channel integration: No matter where you go, you receive the same disciplined message.  Movies, television, email, radio, social media, Web, snail mail, music, retail… You get the same message everywhere and each channel builds upon and reinforces the others.  He’s big, he’s fat, he wears a red suit and he gives you what you ask for on Christmas Eve. Not December 23. Not December 25. It’s December 24. Every year. The end.

Never any hidden charges:  There are no Congressional committees convening to discuss whether Santa is taking advantage of consumers.  There is no small print.  You are not likely to be subscribed “accidentally” to a magazine simply by unwrapping a gift beneath the tree.  Santa’s pricing appears to be entirely above board. And somehow, shipping is always free.

mom-reading-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpgBrand advocacy: Think of all the parents who read stories about Santa, take their children to see Santa, tuck said children into bed on Christmas Eve with the promise that Santa will soon arrive with presents… Santa has a virtual army of adults carrying his message each and every year, in the exact way that will have the greatest positive impact on each individual child.  Wow!

Long-term view of the customer relationship: Santa is committed to NPV, and everyone’s NPV is BIG.  If you’re a  kid, he wants you to tell other kids what he gave you.  He wants you to talk to your parents and grandparents about what you want.  He wants you to bring your friends to meet him.  And when you grow up, he encourages you to invite him into your home and buy extravagant gifts in his name.  Santa: the ultimate “cycle of life” promoter.

Customer targeting and personalization: If you ask Santa for a bicycle, you’re going to get a bicycle.  You might also get socks, but if a bike is your preferred method of transportation, you won’t get a wagon by mistake. Further, Santa is very likely to build the bike in the exact color you specify. 

A message of “giving back” that’s attainable and not too sanctimonious:  Be nice, get your gift.  Be naughty, and you’re on your own.  No chest-beating, no lectures, no threatening.  Everyone knows the rules, and the rules don’t change.believe-in-santa-stephanie-fierman.jpg
 
Attributes powerful enough to overcome controversy: Santa has a problem that I don’t think any other brand has ever experienced – that is, some people don’t even believe he exists! You may not like a brand like Reebok, or Microsoft, or Hanes, or whatever, but you wouldn’t think of denying their very existence on the planet. And yet, the core attributes represented by Santa transcend even this existential challenge. Even those who ”know” he doesn’t exist still enjoy the gestalt of the brand.  Name me a pizza chain or a department store or TV manufacturer who can say the same.

I could go on (ultimate loyalty program, no channel conflict, efficient manufacturing, distribution and customer service support…), but you get the idea.

Though another Christmas has past, perhaps we should all look to Santa for guidance in 2010.  After all, his operation is well-loved, profitable, always in growth mode and he never loses customers.  I’d be happy with that.

For more marketing thoughts and ideas, check out my second blog at Marketing Observations Grown Daily.

So I walked around all last week, turning the Tiger Woods debacle over in my head, wondering if I had anything to add.  Hadn’t everyone already piled on?  Probably.  And even the thoughts I want to share with you aren’t particularly new, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth saying.  Again. And again.tiger-woods-stephanie-fierman.jpg

Thought #1: what should be public is now private, and what should be private has been made public.  This is an expression borrowed from Ellen Hume, currently an Annenberg Fellow and a world-renowned journalist, teacher and television commentator, among other things. 

Ellen was also the founder of PBS‘s Democracy Project, which focused on citizen involvement in public affairs and was, in part, an effort to more fully leverage all the channels beyond television (that were available even in the late 90′s) in ways that tapped in to those channels’ special capabilities.  The Web is great for providing more in-depth detail than one can deliver on television, for example.

When Hume made this public/private statement, she was making the point that we seem to prefer using 24-hour channels, like the Web, to dredge up every salacious, personal detail about everything and everyone, no matter how ultimately truthful or additive to the story such details may be. By the time we beat said details to death, who even knows what was true or not but, man, what a ride.  Think Tiger here: private details that are now gruesomely public, like a neighbor claiming the golfer was snoring on the lawn and the 911 call heard ’round the world.

Contrast all this with TARP.  Could you explain what TARP is in 25 words or less? How many beneficiaries can you name? How many of them have paid back the money? What is the name of the popular American economist and Nobel Prize winner who has been particularly outspoken and critical of the program? Do you know approximately how much the U.S. government has handed out to date?

I could not answer all of these questions, but I do know that Tiger Woods’ wife used a wedge to smash in his car windows.

After you include Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the U.S. government has doled out over $1 TRILLION in our money. The state of the financial markets has an impact on this country, and an impact on you.  Tiger’s mistresses? Not so much. But dang it all if some knucklehead isn’t updating this story every 20 seconds. 

What is public is private and what should be private is public.  Conduct yourself accordingly.

Related Thought #2: The math doesn’t work anymore. Once something is brewing you can hope for the best, but act, please, assuming the worst.

Just this past week, a smart person I know looked at a situation in which it was possible that Company X might encounter negative press if information having nothing to do with the company was misinterpreted in the media. So this smart person did what smart people are trained to do: s/he attempted to thoughtfully quantify Company X’s exposure – for example, how many individuals might actually be impacted by the event. Everyone comfortably concluded that the answer was not very many.

That used to be a good answer. Not anymore. Now it only takes one person with a high-speed Internet connection and a beef to let millions of people know what he knows or what he thinks he knows. Dell poo-pooed Jeff Jarvis.  United ignored Dave Carroll. Comcast disregarded Mona Shaw.  One blogger with an agenda attempted to trash a model’s reputation.   An anonymous jerk on JuicyCampus.com started a vicious tirade about female Yale Law School students.  Are you next?

devil.jpgIt takes one person to start a fire you will not be able to control.  And some form of this content will remain on the Web forever. For-e-ver.

Forget about intelligent, rational assessments of how big something might become.  By the time it’s big, it’s too late.  It could be one anonymous email, or an angry spouse or a dissatisfied customer.  Move quickly when a crisis arises, or else.

So what I hope Tiger, you and I now have in common is an understanding of the gigantic reputational risks that now exist, given the Web and a 24 hour news cycle.  My advice to normal people is to build a positive reputation online before something happens, so it’s there as a counterbalance to any threat that might arise.  I never thought I needed to recommend that one should also attempt to avoid totally avoidable, stupid acts that could unravel everything a person has built, but hey – a fresh reminder never hurt anyone.

gucci-sunglasses-stephanie-fierman.jpgA recent article made me think back to a post I wrote last summer titled “Stephanie Fierman Likes Plastic Gucci Sunglasses – And Is OK With It.” The post says that experts who say that not-rich consumers are essentially duped into buying luxury goods are missing a large swath of buyers who know exactly what they’re doing: that is, buying fun, knowing full well that they could buy functionality at a far lower price. Hence, Gucci vs. $10 plastic sunglasses I can buy on the street. Plastic is plastic. But that dopey logo represents an indulgence a reward – for which I am sometimes willing to pay full freight.street-vendor-stephanie-fierman.jpg

BusinessWeek outlines the efforts of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and author of the book Predictably Irrational, who has spent the past year trying to figure out the forces that drive people to cheat (paging Bernie Madoff…)

Ariely’s very very boiled down conclusion is that individuals who are not directly faced with evidence or reminders that what they are doing is wrong are more likely to plow ahead and conversely, those who are reminded are less likely to do so. He describes a couple of experiments he used to try to measure “deception’s slippery slope.”
* Subjects who knowingly wore faux designer sunglasses later cheated twice as often on an unrelated task than those wearing authentic goods – take the first step and it’s that much easier to take the second.
* Get an auto insurance applicant to sign his name on the top of the application rather than the bottom, and he will be more honest about his driving habits – put the consequences right in someone’s face and you’re likely to get “better” behavior.

Here’s a TED video of Ariely talking about why people think it’s ok to cheat:

This has extreme ramifications and potential opportunities for luxury goods manufacturers like LVMH who spend a lot of money and time drawing attention to the costs of counterfeit goods.

Part of the problem is the arguments these companies use. Does the average woman – out with her friends to have a little fun on a Saturday afternoon without a lot of money – have any sympathy when the luxury companies are described as the chief victims of counterfeit buying? I don’t think so.

But what if these manufactures took a different tack, promoting the fact that buying faux fuels organized crime and following it through with stories of what these same criminals did with the $30 I paid for a fake Chloe bag? It certainly wouldn’t be possible in all venues, but could some of these firms visit places like Canal Street in New York and engage directly with potential buyers about the consequences of buying fakes? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen. I’ve seen local TV and newspaper stories about how a luxury company has done a raid with local law enforcement… but never a company interacting directly with consumers at the street-level point of purchase.

If was looking at a table full of fake Tiffany merchandise and given proof of the spot that my money goes to fund terrorist groups, what would I do? Would I stand there and think of the two friends I lost on American Airlines Flight 11? I believe I would – and I think I’d walk away from the table, and tell my friends about the experience.

The Guccis and Tod’s and Burberrys of the world need to find a way to debunk the idea that buying fakes is a victimless crime, and they need to do it as close to the moment of impact – the moment I’m about to buy that fake Cartier watch as possible.

Despite a massive media focus on the event, there’s not a lot one can one say about a photograph of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana from a bong.

Did he do so on his own time?  Definitely.  And is there a near-100% likelihood that Phelps’ was and is entirely in control of his athletic performance?  Absolutely.  Will this matter to some people? Not at all. 

South Carolina, after all, is pondering filing criminal charges.  

Putting aside the criminality of smoking marijuana… there is no question that this is a hit to Phelps as a revenue-producing business. Whether fair or not, Phelp’s representation and sponsors are placed in a tough spot: kid-focused McDonald’s and Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, for example, have both counted on Phelps to project a wholesome, healthy All-American image.  Yes that’s right kids, your gold-medal idol is smoking grass. Weed. Ganja. He’s inhaled. And it looks like he’s done it before, too. Yikes.phelps-frosted-flakes.jpg

Phelps has issued a statement and apology using the “I’m young and dumb” approach and, as Fox Sports has already reported, this event is likely to fade in the memory of the public. The question is whether sponsors will stick with him and help mend his reputation permanently.

The Mojo believes that Phelps’ fortunes are likely to survive long-term if this side of him never sees daylight again. But if there’s more to come – if this episode turns out to be only Strike 2 following his arrest for drunk driving in 2004 – his sponsorship potential may not recover for decades, if ever.

———————————-

UPDATE:  A version of this post is available on www.reputationgarage.com, where a frustrated fan imagines a hypothetical “Dear America” letter from Phelps: “I work my a** off 10 months a year. It’s that hard work that gave you all those gooey feelings of patriotism last summer. If during my brief window of down time I want to relax… you can spare me the lecture.” 

The Mojo could definitely understand, even sympathize, with Phelps if he’s having these thoughts.  There are, however, two relevant concepts here: (1) When the “institution” in question is an individual, it can be challenging to separate the person from his or her behavior.  As a matter of cold, hard cash, Phelps damaged his sponsorship machine.  It doesn’t mean he is a “bad person.” (2) Life is not fair.  The bank bailout debacle has, in particular, brought out the fact that how society measures behavior whether it be personal indulgement or taking “deserving” bank executives to Vegas is not always rational or fair. If there is heat around an issue (like illegal drugs), people may vote in a way that is not entirely logical.  An institution can subsequently correct its behavior, or continue on and accept the consequences.

As my readers know, I’ve been fixated on the concept of value for quite some time. Any random post may not seem to fit this theme, but just about all of them do: turning store returns into a great shopping experience; Visa offering upscale bathrooms to attendees at a festival; a company that lets you leave a voicemail for a person without running the risk of actually having to speak to the person (eww!).  All of these are examples of real, observable value.

money-tree.jpgFor all intents and purposes, this is my first post on the general state of marketing since the US economy imploded. I haven’t said a whole lot because I’m still forming my own opinion on what brands need to do to survive and maintain consumer loyalty. What I am ready to say is that the key is value.

I believe the key distinction now, however, is between real and perceived value. Perceived value is what I talked about when I happily acknowledge(d) buying $250 Gucci sunglasses. I am fully aware that I could derive the same amount of real value from $10 shades bought on Canal Street.  Shield eyes from sun? Check.  but I saw a level of psychic value in the brand for which I was willing to pay an enormous premium. I measured that psychic value by how the world around me recognized that value. Looking at myself in the mirror wearing Gucci sunglasses gets old quickly. But having people reinforce my purchase – every day – as I walk around the city? Priceless. Value has two ingredients: (1) the real value that delivers functionality, and (2) the “psychic premium” I’m willing to pile on top so that the world sees me (and I see myself) in a certain way.

It turns out that it is not just beauty – but also value – that is in the eye of the beholder.

This is why even people “with money” have slowed their spending… why even luxury goods are seeing a decline in sales. It’s no longer fashionable to display the same brand names that only months ago were a mark of prosperity. Those marks are now seen as an indication of greed, of phony superiority, of foolishness. It’s not cool to show you have lots of discretionary income when everyone else is suffering. That’s why Mrs. Dick Fuld is still shopping at Hermes but now demands the store place her purchases in a plain white bag. It’s why Danny Meyer says his restaurants are actually selling the same amount of wine (as before the crash) but fewer bottles, his supposition being that people have decided that a bottle sitting on the table is an unwanted signal of wealth. It’s why DeBeers’ new ad campaign attempts to position diamonds as something to be kept forever in a world filled with “disposable distractions.”cutting-credit-card-debt.jpg

Don’t get me wrong: there will always be rich people who wear big big diamonds in environments where everyone else is doing the same. That’s not going to change, but that’s also not what fueled the success of Coach and Vuitton and even Starbucks in the US: what did was millions more not-so-rich people over-extending themselves to buy that Vuitton bag (or Gucci sunglasses) because they liked the world’s reaction. These behaviors are at the heart of the “trading up” phenomenon in America. Take away both (a) the people who couldn’t afford their purchases in the first place, and (b) those who can afford expensive things but who will no longer get the thrill of everyone else’s desire, and you’ve got major, major problems. Products and services that run on perceived value need to make a new plan, Stan, and fast.

This will not happen overnight. As I said, some people who can still afford to buy status-driven things will continue to do so. Others will wean themselves off instead of going cold turkey. Read the Wall Street Journal editorial, “I Once was Chic, But Now I’m Cheap,” written by an Apple buyer who vows that his family’s next computer purchases will be PCs. The piece reads like a therapy session. The writer’s preparing for the DT’s.

I’m also not particularly convinced that this is some sort of seismic global shift in values; the current economic situation may simply repress luxury consumption for awhile. But until that happens, consumers will either live without or discover products and services that deliver more real value: and once a shopper discovers that a store brand whitens his teeth as well as your brand, he may never come back.

stephanie-fierman-treat-customers-right1.jpgDraw your loyal customers closer, now.  Add value, if you can.  Remind your customers why they buy from you.  Get them to tell others, and you may just be able to stay flat (which is, after all, the new up).  The water level is going down, gentle readers, and all that’s underneath are the brands that deliver enough usefulness to hang tough until the next tide comes in. And that could take quite some time.

The teenage jury is in: Abercrombie & Fitch’s cross-channel marketing/ hype machine leaves just about everyone else in the dust.  Launched in 1892, I suspect that former shoppers Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway, Amelia Earhart and Clark Gable would scarcely recognize the clothier whose soft-core porn advertising/experience that has turned the chain into a cultural icon (well, maybe Gable would feel at home…).

Since rebooting the brand in 1988, A&F has broken from the teen pack by courting controversy everywhere it goes.  Let us count the ways…

Because just about every retailer has a catalog and everyone’s catalog is free (ho-hum), A&F created a separate lifestyle magazine full of black-and-white photographs taken by Bruce Weber, the photographer best known for highlighting ”the beauty of youth in male nude photography” (as taken verbatim from his own website).   There were so many protests over A&F Quarterly (which the company sells – further stoking desire among teens)  that the company suspended publication for awhile; it’s hard to say whether it was the magalog’s porn star interviews or the b&w shots of Santa and Mrs. Santa Claus in flagrante that pushed thousands of parents and a few governors and attorneys general over the edge… who’s to say?

Such outrage, of course, only pushed the Quarterly to greater, more mythical heights, stoking the company’s good-but-bad-boy (emphasis on ”boy”) reputation.  Go online right now to witness the hysteria it generated in 2003. Totally un-cool Bill O’Reilly, a series of religious organizations and others called for boycotts, and articles concerned with “cultural decay” screamed out with headlines like “Abercrombie & Fitch Stops Selling Porn.“  Parental boycotts? Porn?  Thongs for pre-teens, according to Bill O’Reilly? [Don't think too much about that one.]  All like catnip to your underage kitty.  Meee-ow!

A&F Quarterly has recently been reintroduced (in Europe, not the US) with a promise from the company that it would no longer be sold to individuals under the age of 18 and that there would be less of everything that made it hot in the first place.  Nevertheless, I wouldn’t expect any A&F articles on the virtues of abstinence anytime soon.


On the ground, it appears that the company used the Quarterly‘s hiatus period to begin focusing on customer service and the stores.  A new CEO was brought in from Gucci which – at 46,000 feet - now boasts the largest luxury store in the world right here on New York’s Fifth Avenue.  Gucci knows how to push the rags.  The CEO beefed up store staffing and there are now greeters at the front of every store, in addition to at least one employee inside covering each sales section.  But what is A&F’s spin?  A&F hires male models as greeters, who may literally be standing out on the sideway, stirring up – whatever.  The company further inflates the aspiration by “casting” for such greeters on its website, where the pages pulsate with club music accompanying a video of store events where the models are decidedly half-naked and the customers are clearly under 18.  If you are interested in becoming a model for A&F, you’re asked for a photo, your height, your weight… and the name of the mall nearest you.   ‘Cuz you may be pretty, but don’t ever forget why you’re here.


A&F’s been knocking around in my head for some time, but the impetus for this post was an experience this past Labor Day weekend.  Marketing Mojo was merrily cruising down NYC’s Fifth Avenue until running headlong into a case of gridlock at 57th Street.  What could it be?  Celebrities (pretty typical in these here parts…)?  No, it was a huge mass of people standing in front of A&F’s flagship store, waiting to get in and taking pictures of what definitely seemed to be a highlight of their day.  There were two beautiful young male models standing at the door controlling entry, and a line of people behind a velvet rope that snaked around the corner.  A velvet rope.  2008′s version of Studio 54/Limelight/China Club (all of which the Mojo’s under-18 friends snuck into) is… Abercrombie & Fitch. 

There is no question that A&F has made some wrong moves, particularly in the area of diversity.  Several years ago, the company made t-shirts that it considered fun and tongue-in-cheek.  Just about everyone else, including many college student organizations, considered them racist.  And in 2004, the company settled a $50 million class action lawsuit brought by former employees who claimed that the company was happy to hire African-Americans, Asians, Filipinos and other minorities… as long as they worked in the stores’ stockrooms and not out on the selling floor.   

Ergo, the stupid, screwed up (and illegal) side of presenting the ”Caucasian, football-looking, blonde-hair, blue-eyed, skinny, tall male” as everyone’s ideal.  


Fast forward to 2008, and the company is making progress.  Today, the company claims that minorities make up 32% of its sales staff.  It also has a  huge “Diversity” section on its website.  Of course this is A&F, so the section plays a video loop that features Asians, Latinos and African-Americans – all of whom are gorgeous and (most of whom are) in some state of undress.  The company can’t give up everything!


[Nota bene: An employee recently claimed that A&F has simply shifted its discriminatory ways toward not hiring ”ugly” people, with the company’s ”hierarchy of hotness” dictating just about everything.  And not hiring unattractive people (across all ethnic groups) is very hard to outlaw, according to a lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the original 2004 case.] 


Based on 20 years of business experience, the Mojo has absolutely no doubt that A&F’s lawyers and senior management are fully cognizant of what they’re doing, and believe that a nuisance lawsuit or two is worth preserving the highly profitable fantasy world they’ve created.  And by doing so, A&F taps into its target consumer’s impressionable zeitgeist like few others do – or have the nerve to do.

Abercrombie & Fitch  back to school shopping  clothing retail