Archive for February, 2008

Guaranteed. Period.

February 26, 2008

 

When I lived in Italy, I worked with a guy who said to me, “What is Italy famous for? Three things: its history, its art, and its food. Well, we can’t sell history and art, but we can make a lot of money from its food!” His company made low-budget TV commercials, and he wanted to make a series of how-to videotapes (not CDs; this was in the olden days, back before the new millennium) of a chef preparing the culinary masterpieces of Italy. By the time I met him he’d let the idea simmer for too long.

 

I said, “We need some kind of guarantee to reassure buyers. If the customer doesn’t like it, he can send it back.”

 

I told him about L. L. Bean, the mail order company in the US that will accept merchandise back for ever. Their motto is “Guaranteed. Period.” You can send a piece of clothing back if you don’t like it, of course, or if it doesn’t fit. You can also wear it for ten years, send it back, and still get a refund. I told him it was a great sales tool, and that he’d sell more tapes that way.

 

“Absolutely not!” he cried. “’Caveat emptor’ which is Latin for “buyer beware.” Italians love to use Latin slogans. “If they bought it, they own it!”

 

We had a lot of other marketing disagreements, and I stopped working with him after a short while. He was able to turn his idea into a half-baked sales proposition.

 

The point of the story is the brief article that appears in the American Marketing Association’s February Marketing News (2/15/08). It listed L. L. Bean as the highest in customer satisfaction.

 

It’s true that some people will always abuse the returns system, but it really doesn’t matter what system is used – 30-day return, or return with receipt only, or exchange only, etc. – someone will always try to beat it. What matters is the public perception of the quality of the product, and the willingness of the company to stand behind it.

 

The markups in clothing make this a good place to use such a strategy. In fact, of the ten companies listed for highest customer satisfaction, five either sold clothes exclusively or sold them in conjunction with other merchandise.

 

Would such an offer work for high-end clothiers, for a Brooks Brothers or a Giorgio Armani? Might be worth a try.

 

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When a language dies

February 24, 2008

Languages die all the time. Linguists estimate that in the past there were about 15,000 languages on the planet; today there are around 6700, half of which are expected to disappear in this century.

Death expressed in big numbers is hard to feel. It’s like reports of massive killings. The Nazis exterminated six million people; 30 million disappeared into Stalin’s gulags… but they’re just numbers. When your neighbor dies, you feel it in your gut.

 

That’s the way I felt when I read The Economist this week. It published the obituary of Marie Smith, the last speaker of an Eskimo language, Eyak. There’s a saying that every time a language dies, a unique way of seeing the world dies with it. I agree.

 

It’s hard to understand if you only speak one language. Then you tend to think that all languages say the same thing. You may think that “a car is a car is a car.” But when an American thinks “car” (at least, one who’s my age), he thinks “Chevrolet.” It’s the picture he has in his head, with all the attendant emotions. When a Frenchman thinks “car,” he sees a Peugeot; an Italian sees a FIAT, and so on. They’re all cars, but the language places a different feel on them. The same is true for most common words like “home” and “school” and “work.”

 

The article talked about the unique words Marie used as a girl to describe the land she grew up in. After her older sister died, she realized she was the last speaker. She tried to save the language, but she didn’t really succeed. We can write down words like “car” and “home,” but unless we can see them through the intricate web that makes up a language, we only get half the meaning.

 

Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” When a language dies, a little of humanity’s poetry dies with it.

How much is writing worth?

February 21, 2008

A recent article in the American Marketing Association’s Journal of Marketing discussed pirated music downloads. A study cited for the article said that for commonly-available products, those which have virtually no cost to reproduce (like recorded music in MP3 format) the sales price tends to go to zero. Music is expensive to produce, but is commonly available and very cheap to reproduce and distribute (we all know about Napster). And although the study said this effect was not applicable to unique or customizable products (like writing), I’m not so sure I agree.

Writing requires a skilled, experienced journalist to deliver interesting, persuasive text. It takes time, money, and effort to produce the journalist (or musician) and the product. But today, a couple of keystrokes can make the product available to the world at no cost. In my opinion, we are seeing the same trend in both music and text.

Small-town and regional newspapers have been free on-line for years. They don’t have the market size, demand for information, or quality of writing to support selling their text.

 

It used to be different for the big publishers. But in September, 2007, the New York Times, which up until then had charged Web viewers for access to its “premium” content, switched to free, advertising-supported service. In October London’s Financial Times said it would offer 30 free articles on its Web site each month. My favorite magazine, The Atlantic, began offering its content on-line for free last month. I felt offended because I’ve been a subscriber to the magazine for years, and now everyone else will get for free what I’ve been paying for.

 

These and similar publications will always attract readers willing to pay. The question is whether subscription-based Web sites are the most lucrative way to market the text.

It looks as though the answer is no. Instead, the big publishers now put their content in a different package. They can still make money by selling it to readers, it’s true, but they make more money by giving away the writing and selling ad space next to it.

My concern as a copywriter is the perception that “great writing shouldn’t cost much, and that’s the way it should be!” will become pervasive.

What is this thing called… marketing?

February 15, 2008

 

A big part of this blog is about marketing, so maybe we should start by defining exactly what it is. Since selling and marketing is based on emotions, needs, and perceived values, things that have been with us since we lived in caves, I would expect the definition of marketing to be static. Without giving it a lot of thought, I would define it, “Helping sell a product or service to a potential customer.”

 

The “official” definition is reworked every two years by the American Marketing Association, based on their perception of changes in how, where, and by whom things are sold.

 

The latest definition was published in their monthly magazine, Marketing News (1/15/08). According to the AMA,

 Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large. 

What a mouthful. Compare this to the original definition, made up back in 1935 by the National Association of Marketing Teachers. That was the group the preceded today’s AMA:

 

“(Marketing is) the performance of business activities that direct the flow of goods and services from producers to consumers.” 

 

The big difference that I see between then and now is that marketing is currently used by everyone for everything. People “market” themselves to employers, spouses, and their children as well as their clients and customers. Marketing is no longer about business products and services, but about anything that has to do with creating a favorable impression, justified or not.

 

As individuals, we used to want to be witty and charming and interesting. Now it’s all about “marketing” yourself. I see this definition applied more than ever here in New York City where I reside and work.

 

Is that so bad? Maybe. When you stop thinking “I’m going to do a good job” and start thinking “I’m going to convince someone I’m doing a good job,” you can get distracted from doing a good job in the first place.

Marketing still has its place by any definition, but only after you’ve created the best product or service that you can. Especially if you’re the product.