Addition by Subtraction

It has been almost two years since this blog was updated. The last post before this one went up in July 2014. Absolutely no new content was added in 2015. This is noteworthy because, despite going completely dark, views on the blog increased 33% in 2015 over the previous year. September of 2015, more than one year after the last post was added, was our highest traffic month ever. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the success of this endeavor and my level of direct involvement with it. (Some might say this is a persistent pattern in my life.)

2016-04-17 14.15.29

The numbers don’t lie: laziness and inaction lead to dramatic growth.

I found the growth surprising, but what really shocked me about it was that the gains were driven almost entirely by the popularity of a single post — a look back at the “Coffee Achievers” ad campaign from the 1980s. Each month since it was posted, the Coffee Achievers post has significantly outdrawn every other post on the blog. That’s probably because not a lot has been written about the campaign, so somebody searching for information about it online will find a link to the post fairly high in their Google search results. Of course, the fact that such searches are even taking place leads one to the uncomfortable conclusion that I’m not the only person in the world weird enough to care about a thirty-year old ad campaign that shows Ken Anderson and Cicely Tyson sipping coffee.

That conclusion in turn leads me to believe that perhaps there is more of an appetite for arcane marketing-related weirdness, nostalgia and snark than I thought possible when I first started the blog. With that in mind, I am encouraged to dust off the keyboard and start posting again. That decision might kill all the momentum created by me being away for 20 months, but so be it.  The Marketing Smart Aleck blog is once again open for business.




80/20 Market Research

Many years ago in graduate school, I took a seminar in advertising. The professor was a distinguished British gentleman who was a veteran of many years at the highest levels of the industry. This professor made it a point from the first day of class on to impress upon the students that advertising was a “weak force” that couldn’t do much more than nudge somebody to buy something they were already inclined to buy in the first place. Furthermore, he told us the people most likely to pay attention to a brand’s advertising were those who were already users of that brand.

Those sorts of proclamations from the professor took a little bit of the air out of my tires. As a child of ’70s and ’80s television, I had grown up believing that advertising was a powerful force that changed people’s minds on a dime and could persuade people to switch brands with just a little clever wordplay or a well-executed design. That was the whole reason I was in grad school studying it! I didn’t want to believe my professor’s arguments about advertising’s limitations. But ultimately, he convinced me by virtue of the fact that, like most Americans, I automatically accept any information delivered to me in a British accent as being authoritative.

Since then, I have seen for myself over the course of my career that the professor’s assertions were true, both about advertising and marketing as a whole. It is profoundly difficult to change people’s minds or behavior, even if your message can fight its way through all of the clutter of competing marketing that the target audience is doing its best to ignore. Word-of-mouth is much more likely to influence a consumer than anything the marketer can do or say.

I bring all this up because it provides some context for my appreciation for a piece by Ray Poynter that was recently featured on the GreenBook Blog. Poynter argues that, in most cases, a marketer should focus 80% of its market research on its customers. This is in contrast to the way much research was done in the past, which tended to focus on the whole market. A major underlying assumption of the whole market approach is that it’s important to understand a lot about non-users of a brand in order to figure out ways to convert them. In other words, it assumes that marketing is a powerful force, fairly capable of overcoming the consumer’s skepticism, previous habits or apathy.

Focusing a large majority of the research on existing customers is more of a nod to the factors that my grad school professor was talking about – essentially that marketing works best when it is applied to consumers already positively inclined toward the brand. Or, as Poynter says in the piece, “In many cases, perhaps most cases, the best way to grow a brand is to increase the number of customers who ‘love’ it, because these people will recommend it, use it ostentatiously, and offer it in group settings. In most cases, a new line, a new campaign, a new service will only succeed if existing customers respond positively to it.”

It’s a very sensible approach, yet I suspect that a lot of marketers who should be following this 80/20 recommendation are devoting less than 80% of their research efforts on existing customers. It can be hard sometimes for even experienced marketing veterans to admit how much more powerful the consumer’s own inclinations and social peers are than our best-laid marketing plans. And if you don’t have an advertising professor with a persuasive British accent on hand, reading Mr. Poynter’s article in its entirety is the next best thing to remind you otherwise.

RetroAnalysis: The Coffee Achievers

If I told you that there was a publicity event in the 1980s that brought together musical acts like David Bowie, the Electric Light Orchestra and Heart, you’d probably assume that I was talking about Live Aid or USA for Africa, but that’s not the answer. Throw author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., actress Cicely Tyson, SNL Weekend Update anchor Jane Curtin, and middling NFL quarterback Ken Anderson in with those musicians and the common denominator between them becomes even harder to guess at…unless you’re old enough to remember that those people, and a few others, represented an elite cadre known as The Coffee Achievers.

Intrigued? Baffled? This video should begin to explain things.

As you can surmise from the video, The Coffee Achievers was an early ’80s advertising campaign from the National Coffee Association designed to make coffee seem more hip to a younger generation. There was concern during the 1980s and early ’90s that young adults weren’t adopting the coffee habit, and a belief that it was seen as an old person’s drink. In response, the NCA dipped into the MTV roster and put together some montages of youngish celebrities (save for Vonnegut, who was about 60 at the time, but enjoyed some cachet with the younger crowd) doing things that seemed exciting — mixing a record, acting,  preparing to lose Super Bowl XVI to the 49ers…

Okay, the Super Bowl crack was a little harsh, but let’s face it — to the extent that Ken Anderson is remembered at all outside of Cincinnati, it’s for coming up a little short in the Super Bowl that launched the 49ers dynasty. And The Marketing Smart Aleck is convinced that the only reason Anderson wound up in these commercials is because Joe Montana wanted too much money. But we digress.

The Coffee Achievers campaign represented a reasonable underlying strategy, even if the execution now seems a little hokey and dated. Of course even back in the 1980s, social observers as varied as Weird Al Yankovic and the comic strip “Bloom County”  were making fun of the spots and their “movers and shakers” rhetoric. It was as hard then as it is now to listen with a straight face to copy like:

“Coffee lets you calm yourself down, and it picks you up! Coffee gives you the serenity to dream it and the vitality to do it!”

So, basically, NCA was trying to sell caffeine as a mind-altering, performance-enhancing drug that combined all the most popular effects of marijuana, amphetamines, peyote and cocaine. An interesting approach indeed from the same decade that regularly implored us to “Just say no!”

Ultimately, the campaign faded away in the mid-’80s and didn’t seem to accomplish its objectives. A decade later, the coffee industry was still trying to figure out ways to convert young adults into java drinkers. Those efforts led to, among other things, an  intriguing failed venture by Starbucks and Pepsi to produce a carbonated coffee soda. Blech!  

Then a funny thing happened. At some point in the ’90s, Generation X, in their twenties at that time, finally started drinking coffee. In fact, coffee became cool. Maybe it was the cultural influence from Seattle during the Grunge Era. Perhaps it was because the hit TV sitcom and generational touchstone Friends was set in a coffee shop. It probably had something to do with a wider variety of gourmet flavors and coffee formats like espresso and cappuccino becoming mainstream during that period. But maybe, just maybe, the seed had been planted in those commercials back in the ’80s, and took a while to germinate. After all, one does not attain the lofty rank of Coffee Achiever overnight.


Intercept Interviewing | Mickey Mouse Style

Where does the Marketing Smart Aleck go on vacation? Why, to the The Most Marketing-est Place On Earth, of course! This post from the RMS Research Bunker Blog recounts the market research lessons from my recent trip to Walt Disney World.

The Research Bunker

I’m always thinking about market research, even when I’m on vacation. During my most recent vacation, I wound up thinking about it a lot. Last week, my family and I visited the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.  During our stay, I noticed that the Disney Research team had a very strong contingent of intercept survey interviewers out in all of the various parks as well as in the Downtown Disney shopping area. My wife and I were each approached by interviewers several times and there were perhaps half a dozen occasions when I passed by interviewers surveying other people.

Cinderella's Castle

Disney conducting intercept surveys at their parks did not surprise me, but the sheer volume of activity naturally caught my attention. And of course, I jumped at the opportunity to participate in the research because I was curious to see how a huge, global organization approached something that is…

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Odd Product Hall of Fame: The Tauntaun Sleeping Bag

To honor Star Wars Day 2014, the Odd Product Hall of Fame resolved to recognize a piece of Star Wars merchandise. Since the Star Wars movie franchise burst onto the scene in 1977, there have been untold numbers of merchandising tie-ins, many of which can certainly be described as odd products. Just a few examples include Kellogg’s C-3PO’s Cereal, the Darth Vader Toaster and Lightsaber Chopsticks. So, the challenge for the selection committee was not to find a suitably odd choice, but rather to select just one from the scads of potential honorees.

After poking around on Google for about 15 minutes a careful review of many such worthy candidates, we determined that the odd Star Wars product that stood head and shoulders above the others was ThinkGeek’s Tauntaun Sleeping Bag.

A few factors swayed the decision in favor of this sleeping bag. To our knowledge, this is the only product on the market that allows people to re-enact a movie scene that involves cutting open an animal and sleeping inside its stench-ridden carcass. So there’s that. We also like that this actually started out as an April Fool’s gag on the ThinkGeek website, which ultimately generated such public demand that it became a real product. That makes it the rare case where we know for sure that the producers of an odd product understood how weird their idea was from the very outset. Mostly, we voted for the sleeping bag because it’s just flat-out funny.

Be proud, Tauntaun Sleeping Bag. With almost forty years worth of merchandise to choose from, we selected you over all  your Star Wars-inspired brethren to be enshrined in the Odd Product Hall of Fame. Congratulations. And May the Fourth be with you.

Higher Education Trends: The Cost of Not Going to College

This is a post I wrote for the RMS Research Bunker Blog about a recent study that quantified the economic differences between graduates and non-graduates. Even as someone who has been involved in higher education market research for more than a decade, and as someone employed at a university, I was a little surprised at the level of disparity. The situation faced by much of the American workforce is, frankly, worrying and in my personal opinion, calls for a solution beyond simply “college for everyone.” That said, this research serves as a powerful counter-argument against those who believe that the payoff of a college education no longer exists.

The Research Bunker

Over the past few years, there has been a growing concern that high education costs combined with uncertain employment prospects for recent graduates have created a situation where a college degree is no longer worth the cost. The Research Bunker Blog addressed this topic in a post last year about fiscal challenges in higher education. Our main observation at the time was while the ROI for a degree might not be what it once was, there was still undeniably a need for a college educated workforce. Findings from a recent study by the Pew Research Center have reinforced that idea, and suggest that although the cost of going to college is considerable, the cost of not going is increasingly severe.

The study examined the differences between “Millennial” (age 25 to 32) college graduates and their peers with less educational attainment. It also incorporated an analysis that tracked the results of how…

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