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The Elusive Butterfly Of Coolness

Posted On: 2/11/2010

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More than a decade ago, the phrase "perception is reality" entered the language and gained prominence in the industry discourse. Like all such generalizations, this one is valuable because it allows us to look at things from a different direction. And, again like all such generalizations, it cannot bear too much weight, and it cannot be used as a simple formulaic substitute for careful observation and thought.

The sense of "perception is reality" is that, if everyone sees a product or service as unsatisfactory, then it is unsatisfactory, however well it may perform its intended task. The Ford Edsel of the late '50s is a good example of this; it was an excellent car, but something about its futuristic styling struck people as humorous, and it was doomed.

However, this principle cannot be inverted. A product or service that is unsatisfactory will not survive for very long, if any alternative is available, no matter how much positive "buzz" its conceptual elegance may elicit when it's introduced. Providers of broadband wireless services are grappling with this difficulty right now.

We bring this up because it bears directly on the use of "social networking" as a marketing tool. This is a hot topic, and it's not hard to see why. If a new product arouses the enthusiasm of its early adopters, their rave reviews will spur sales.

Unfortunately, there is a certain kind of mind for which that proposition implies that it should be possible to cheat, if only a way could be found to do it. The challenge, then, is to create favorable "buzz" about a mediocre or inferior product. It has been tried, and it cannot succeed.

What may be worse is that there is another kind of mind for whom the quality of the "buzz" becomes the really important part, far more interesting than the actual product or service. This can cause substantial sums of money to be spent on "viral" marketing and similar snipe hunts, rather than invested in customer service.

Long before the Information Age arrived, marketers knew that "the best advertisement is a satisfied customer." Spending on customer satisfaction can have tremendous long-term benefits.

Back in the Eisenhower administration, when we were in junior high school, we had to write a "research" paper, which required soliciting information by mail. We chose color photography as our topic, and we wrote to half a dozen companies involved in that business. All of them replied -- which probably would not be so today -- and all the replies were helpful. But the one that really stood out was sent by Eastman Kodak Co. (Rochester, NY). Kodak evidently had a number of mid-level executives whose title was something like "third vice-president in charge of writing cordial, intelligent letters to children." The letter we received was several pages long, went into great detail, and was accompanied by a number of wonderful Kodak Databooks whose nominal value was around $15. That was nothing to sneeze at in 1956.

As a result of that, we have remained loyal to Kodak for more than half a century, and could not estimate the amount of money we've spent on Kodak products. The point here is that there was no "metric" that some securities analyst could have applied to compute the return on the investment of an hour and a half of someone's time, and half a dozen booklets, over the next half-century. But they knew that the thing was worth doing.

The Internet and the "social media" it has engendered hold tremendous promise for connecting with customers much more rapidly, and at much lower cost, than was possible with traditional communications media. However, in order to realize that potential on a national or international scale, someone will have to bite the bullet and spend a good deal of money to build a staff of capable, amiable and informed "interactors." It is not enough to give people a forum for complaint and compliment; it is necessary to listen and respond.

We think there is a great opportunity for the vending industry here. Good operators always have striven to establish cordial relations with their affinity-group patrons, and many have enjoyed considerable success at doing so. The arrival of practical ways to link vending machines into networks that enable real-time bidirectional communication holds immense promise for suppliers, but they cannot really exploit that promise by themselves without accepting a level of middle-management staffing that is not considered feasible in the current economy.

This is where the operator can play a unique role. Vending, even when offered by national companies, is inherently a local business, conducted within communities. Alert operators already have the will, and some of the means, for engaging in dia­logue with their local audiences.

We think investing in programs that facilitate operator-supplier alliances in getting information to and from consumers would pay much greater dividends than staging costly extravaganzas designed to make the company appear cool. The target audiences for this kind of thing always have recognized that laborious attempts to be cool are the height of uncoolness.