I’ve been reading a lot of books about marketing, advertising, and business strategy lately. I thought to myself: what would I write if I was given carte blanche by a publisher? Until recently, I didn’t have much of the requisite background. In fact, it could be argued that everything I know about marketing, I learned from Seinfeld. Here are some points I’d make… which I’d gladly flesh out for a six-figure advance.
This, my friends, is the cardinal rule. When everyone else zigs, you must zag. Is everyone else making slow cars? Make a fast car. Is everyone else making wasteful toilets? Specialize in water-saving toilets that actually work. It’s easy enough to confirm.this suspicion through reading the wise business counsel of authors like Ries and Trout on positioning, of course. Best practices? What about worst practices? Although his Gonzo Marketing: Winning Through Worst Practices is a bit fanciful, Locke’s on the right track. More recently, in Your Marketing Sucks, Mark Stevens argues that you won’t get very far by studying your competitors and trying to do just a little bit better. Instead, he advises, you’d do better taking out a blank sheet of paper and coming up with something completely different. That doesn’t mean saying to yourself: “well, everyone’s making those salty oily kettle chips, so let’s make ours different by making them cherry-flavored.” Get off kettle chips, and away from all snack foods. (Exception: unless you start a franchise where you sell a single kind of treat in malls, like New York Fries does.) The space is too crowded and you’ll lose your shirt. These lessons can be learned from business gurus, but no one taught it better than George Costanza. Him and Monty Python.
Face it. You probably aren’t Thomas Edison, or Hewlett, or Packard. And if you don’t have a garage, and live in a small apartment, you should probably get a computer and write some software instead of tinkering around with chemicals and turbines. If it sounds like pushing a big ball of oil out a window might be a foolish idea, then it probably is. About a hundred people lay claim to having invented the Internet, or parts of it. Let’s face it, the wealth usually comes from running a company that does a lot of things right. Inventing something is the easy part. So if someone copies your invention, don’t worry. It wasn’t the invention that was going to make you successful anyway, unless your so-called invention was a business process or a series of integrated tactics that can make a company grow enormously before anyone catches on, à la McDonald’s, Microsoft, Wal-Mart or (mark my words) DaimlerChrysler circa 2004. Speaking of autos, if all that cool fuel cell technology is so great, then where is it? In a few buses in Singapore? Meanwhile automakers are building ever-larger SUV’s and high-margin rear-wheel-drive speed demons not dissimilar to what turned people’s crank in the 1940’s and 1960’s. Who knew? I guess sometimes it pays not to do the opposite, which is, in itself, a way of doing the opposite.
I sure hope Pepsi and Hershey and the rest are paying for every impression they’re receiving from Seinfeld episodes in syndication, because every time Jerry opens his fridge or Elaine “stops off for candy,” this is a product placement viewers actually pay attention to. Incidentally, click here to buy CD’s, transcripts, and follow-up Q&A from my recent 80-minute SherpaClinic on how to maximize your Google ad campaign.
Though he comes off as a buffoon, J. Peterman as portrayed by John O’Hurley has the right approach. He knows that “people love interesting writing.” His catalogs tell people the story behind the clothing. He tells them what they should be wearing, and why. This principle is true whether you’re selling high-margin rear-wheel-drive muscle cars, aluminum siding, cleaning services, or jam. If you’re retailing 200,000 different products like Home Depot, some of them are bound to be on the generic side, but the ads do tell people the story of the store, with its helpful, non-threatening associates in their attractive orange bibs.
Standup comedy (especially mediocre standup comedy) might be a great way to make an idiot of yourself, but it works for Jerry. Recall Elaine suddenly warming to him when she found out he had “that kind of money.” But given the choice between dating an actor who plays “The Wiz” and the same guy when he had his former job as a New York Times fact checker “with a certain quiet dignity,” Elaine would have chosen the dignified wordsmith. See the difference? Just imagine Dean Martin as the lovable drunk who just hangs around his neighborhood bar, who can’t sing or act, and doesn’t have Frank Sinatra for a friend. Hmm, come to think of it, that sitcom would beat the hell out of most of the fall lineup.
While they didn’t seem to take off, the muffin tops store opened by Mr. Lippman and the make-your-own-pie joint dreamt up by Kramer aren’t such bad ideas. If you make the treat simple enough, and put enough sugar and/or fat in it, and get the right investors involved, it’ll be in every mall in the country inside of ten years. People just can’t resist fat and sugar. I mean, get serious: Orange Julius? Krispy Kreme? The fact that folks are spending half their lives in their cars or in malls escaping from the summer heat means you can pretty much sell them any old crap, as long as it’s easy to consume. Hmm, maybe that lets out the make-your-own-pie thing. Go with the muffin tops.