The dangers of problem solving

by Jason on December 5, 2011 · 0 comments

38/365 Puzzled by Mykl Roventine

If you’re good at puzzles, you probably picked up the problem solving skill before you learned about marketing.

Too bad.

Here’s the deal: lots of marketing, particularly direct response stuff, is full of clever positioning, open loops, and reframing products and services to raise the curiousity level of the reader. Sometimes, it’s a little cheesy, but even then, it’s often really effective.

If you’re into problem solving though, you won’t accept the concept that the way to reveal the riddle is to buy the product.  And if you do go that route, you’re very likely to feel let down when you find out the answer.

If you were just a consumer, this wouldn’t be so bad.  You could invoke your refund rights and go about your business.  If, however, you’re also in the business of writing clever copy that’s not unlike the kind you just rejected, it can be a death sentence.

Think about it: by rejecting the core principles at work in a campaign that might have just been poorly executed, you’re subliminally rejecting a whole arsenal of tools that you might have been able to use very effectively. I’m not talking about manipulating people here; this can be marketing 101, and if you buy into the old saying (which you should) that if your product or service can help people you have a moral obligation to do everything in your power to sell it, well, you’re suddenly not even living up to your obligations now, all thanks to a silly idea that everyone tries to solve riddles like you do.

Pro tip: here’s how I know something’s not normal online behaviour: if I’ve spent more than 1/2 an hour doing it in the past 6 months.  That’s right, I did in fact Google around your direct response piece’s headline looking for answers so I wouldn’t have to send you $500 for a product on options trading, which I wouldn’t use, but simply so I could find the answer.  Normal people don’t do that.  (I don’t have to ask around.)

And it occurred to me this weekend that my latest headline, that positions an upcoming product perfectly, if I might humbly say so, could have come to me months ago if I wasn’t so busy poo-pooing the clever positioning of others.

Now to see if it works. As long as I don’t target the advertising at people like me, I think I’ll do fine.

Photo by Mykl Roventine

I got a real kick this summer over reaction to the CN Tower’s latest attraction, EdgeWalk, where people get to walk around the outside of the tower, 1,168 feet up.  It’s priced at $175, positioning it as something lots of Toronto residents (the blog and YouTube commenters, anyway,) felt was a ridiculous price.  Me? I thought they should have started at $350.  Maybe $500 with some perks.

Guess what? The call centre was overwhelmed on opening day.

And it’s possible that there weren’t enough reps available to take orders because someone listened to the people complaining, but my point today is this:

It’s important to listen to your customers, but it’s vital to know who your customers are.

I’m going to guess that the people who were complaining about the pricing haven’t been to the top of the CN Tower, on the inside, since they were kids and their parents footed the bill (admission packages range from $23 to $65.) But even if they go every week, so what if they think it’s too much?  They live here.  There are 2 million people going up those elevators every year, which means lots of tourists looking to make Bob from accounting back home jealous with a killer vacation pic. And then there’s the corporate team building stuff where people don’t have to pay, they just have to be insane enough to go do it.

If you think $175 is too expensive, that’s fine. There are only 10,000 tickets each year (it’s real scarcity, since they can only fit a certain number of tours through the schedule safely) so they just need .5% of their customer base to take the deal for a sell out.

Sometimes it’s good to polarize the buyers and the non-buyers really strongly, and I think it’s a great tactic for positioning an attraction like this.  After all, people who choose to try something like this aren’t like normal people.  They’re getting a story to tell, one that’s going to set them apart from the rest of the people at the office.  That’s worth something.

Oh, and I’m not going to do EdgeWalk, by the way, even though I think it’s a bargain. I have no problem telling you it’s not because I’m cheap; I’m just terrified.

Update: Still don’t think it’s worth it? Take a look at Stacie’s blog post of the experience and try to put a price tag on those photos and the stories they tell, both now and in the years to come.

beetsToronto has a bunch of Farmers’ markets, and at the one I go to there are a lot of actual farmers, but some are pretty open that they bring in additional produce from pretty much the same place the grocery stores get it.  I haven’t asked the others, but I suspect that there are a few tables with nothing on them that came from soil the people behind them actually own.

And it makes sense, when you think about it; these things run year round, and while some use hydroponics and greenhouses, there are some crops that you simply shouldn’t be seeing in February, yet there they are, week after week. Or maybe I’m wrong and they’re all home grown, but let’s assume for a moment that some stalls at some markets are simply mini-grocery stores. Here’s the thing:

There aren’t any bananas.

It’d be cool if there were, because we buy bananas pretty much every time we go to the grocer, but the fact is they simply can’t sell bananas at the farmers’ market.

It would break the illusion of local.

Every retailer has options that might add revenue channels with minimal work. The infrastructure’s already in place. But these options often just aren’t possible without sacrificing the positioning and branding that’s been built, along with any price premiums and customer loyalty that have come about as a result.

Wal-Mart can sell whatever they want, but people go there for the lowest price and they’ll readily take an extra bus to go somewhere that’s cheaper.

At the farmers’ market, you can’t sell an $8 basket of heirloom tomatoes next to a bunch of commodity, clearly imported goods like bananas.

Books by Orwell, photo by markhillary

A quick followup to my post on Infinite innovation vs sufficient suckage, which was actually born out of the ideas in this post.  There’s a pattern emerging, which I mentioned earlier, about companies positioning their crappy offerings as “slightly less crappy” as the ones from the established player in the market.  We’re seeing it in Canada’s mobile phone market, interestingly, from these players themselves: each major brand has a downmarket brand that’s completely independent and offers reduced or eliminated fees compared to what you’d pay from big name X.

I honestly don’t know how many consumers don’t realize that the “rebel” brand is the same actual company as the one they’re poking at, maybe it’s completely transparent, maybe not (my nonscientific research suggests that not a lot of people know that Bell Mobility owns Virgin Mobile Canada, as one example) but that doesn’t matter today.

What’s going to happen (or has it happened already) when a few of the big players get together to invent a demon to better position their offerings against?  Kind of a 1984-ish “we have always been at war with Eurasia” thing, but on a corporate level?

I see this pattern with founders leaving their original company to start a competitor, where the story seems to be “this is my chance to do it right” combined with “I’m not happy with the direction my first venture is going under the current ownership, and I’m here to save consumers” but what if we accelerate that and imagine that there are founders who are working, right now, to build a company with the explicit but unspoken intention of an exit via sale to a larger firm, the proceeds of which would fund the build of “version 2.0”?  Like I said, this already happens as founders reboot, but the difference here is that it’d be part of the plan from the outset.  A still risky, but possibly better funded, and possibly fraudulent education, if you will.

Or, if you’re feeling more paranoid, there’s the conspiracy model, where a group of companies secretly fund a potemkin rival that they can all position against.

I can see a day, not far off, where as part of the pre-launch sequence for a venture there’s the founding of a seed company to test what customers truly won’t stand for.  It’s valuable market research, plus you’ve got that out of the gate “finally an alternative to the ridiculous practices of brand X!” positioning to capture the imagination of the public.

These ideas are somewhat cynical, a little paranoid, but I don’t think they’re too far of a projection of what I’m seeing right now, and it’s not limited to tech, but if the current bubble continues to grow I think it’s the best environment to watch for an accelerated microcosm for these ideas.

(And it should be obvious, this is mostly a thought experiment and in no way suggests that any company, mentioned or not, is doing or planning on doing something that’s not above board. It’s just one of those inventions that might already exist that I wanted to write down so I could refer back to it if (or when) it actually happens.)

Photo by markhillary