Learning From Marketing Missteps

We all have them. The less-than-stellar career experiences that we would prefer to sweep under the proverbial carpet and never see or hear about again. But those magical marketing moments to be forgotten have been the source of the most valuable learning of my career. Certainly, there are few better ways to learn how to do something well than by failing at it miserably. No pain, no gain.

So at the risk of never being considered a credible source of marketing advice and information for the remainder of my life, I’ll share with you some of my most embarrassing mistakes and corresponding lessons learned.

My Media Buddy

Early in my career, I was an account executive for a PR agency handling the McDonald’s account. McDonald’s was touring the McDonald’s blimp around the United States, and it was my job to book journalists in Southern California for rides on the dirigible. With this leverage, I began my calls, including one to a major local columnist who, by coincidence, was an alumnus of my alma mater. As it turned out, he always wanted to ride a blimp and was ready to jump at the chance for a ride, not to mention the opportunity to reminisce about his glory days at Florida.

And so it went, me and my new best friend “chatting it up.” As I signed off, I commented to him that as a result of my current efforts, my new office nickname was the “Blimp Pimp.” We shared a good laugh and ended the conversation. And then just like that, two weeks later, there it was in 30-point type on the front page of the paper for the entire world to see: “The blimp pimp had me, and he knew it.”

It’s hard to believe, but somehow McDonald’s didn’t get past the headline and opening paragraph to the wonderful 50-column-inch story that followed. Here’s the takeaway: The news media is never, ever your friend, and everything you say can and will be used, even if you think it’s off the record.

Sex Sells?

In late 1995, we at Sega were in the early days of pitting the Sega Saturn against the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 in our battle for video-game-industry supremacy. For a number of varied reasons, the Sega Saturn was lagging behind its competitors, and the company was scrambling to boost sales of the units. With early video game systems, the best way to get them to sell was by pushing the quality and quantity of the game catalog. And Sega had a reputation for advertising that pushed the limits of good taste.

One idea that surfaced for a print campaign was to take a picture of a nude woman and cover all her vital spots with game screen shots. Even today the idea is as lame as it sounded to me then, and I, as the person in charge of all our advertising, rejected it outright. But it gained momentum with the Saturn brand team and under a good deal of internal team pressure, I reversed my position and let production of the ad move forward.

The finished ad was tasteless at best and downright perverse in light of the fact that the target audience was teenage boys. I again determined it shouldn’t run. But it was too late. It had been submitted by the agency to one magazine through an approval from the Saturn brand manager to meet a tight deadline, and it couldn’t be recalled. (I immediately canceled the remaining insertions.) I didn’t need the numerous angry phone calls from concerned parents to tell me we had made a huge mistake, and I was miserable over the entire incident. After all, it was my giving the green light to the ad in the first place that enabled this to happen. The valuable lesson I learned from this is to stand firm behind what you believe in and never compromise your own set of morals and decency. Sleeping well at night is more important than the number of units sold.

The No-Brainer

During my tool days at Zircon, I was trying to come up with strategies to increase company sales through the introduction of new products. The company had secured almost all of its revenue through one product, so diversification was critical to long-term success. That said, when you are known well for one thing, it’s hard to get people to take the leap of faith to a new and somewhat different product line.

Hence, the aforementioned no-brainer: Let’s package our existing bestseller with the new product and sell them as a bundle. Better yet, let’s do this during the holiday season and up our gift sales. A lot of time and effort went into the development of our holiday gift pack, and a major sales effort was launched. Customers bought into the concept, and we received good early adoption. But all in all it was a stunning failure. While we tried to be sensitive to price, we weren’t sensitive enough, and the package was deemed too expensive for a holiday gift. Add to that a new product with no market track record, and you have all the makings of MacFrugal’s closeout. The moral of the story is price is everything, and customer trust must be earned, not anticipated.

So there it is: my soul laid bare to the world, my greatest professional mistakes exposed. But these experiences have honed my marketing skills, and I leverage them every day for the benefit of campsix and our portfolio companies.

How about you? Are you ready to share your marketing missteps with the ClickZ family? For the brave (and hopefully smarter) among you, send your anecdotes along with the lessons learned to me, and I’ll compile them for an upcoming column. Anonymity will be allowed, but it’s more fun if we can tell it all.

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