Jan 14, 2009

The Shelf Life of Revolutions - Part 1

Twenty years ago, I worked for a small retail ad agency, whose old school outer borough proprietor would always tell me “there are only three things in retail: price, selection and service. It all goes in cycles. Everybody’s talking price, you tell ‘em you know from selection. They all got selection, you’re the king of service.”

It wasn’t something he’d thought up himself: Price, Selection and Service have been the three pillars of retail from the days of the agora. Yet here we are in 2009 and so many of the leading marketing pundits are seeing companies succeed by emphasizing service and acting as if they’d single-handedly discovered the Northwest Passage.

Service is important these days. Primarily as a way to distinguish yourself from your competitors. The tools of web 2.0 allow for 1:1 interaction and that makes it easy to emphasize service. But let’s be clear that service wouldn’t need a whole lot of emphasizing if anyone had been doing a decent job of it over the past several decades.

The post-World War II era was all about price: mass production meant that items previously reserved for the elite were now put in the hands of the many. For people who had grown up during the Depression, these “homogeneous mass-made widgets” were things of wonder and the whole consumer culture made them feel wealthy in a way few could have imagined during their childhood. Not everyone felt this way, as the song “Little Boxes” made clear some 45 years ago, but price was still ascendant throughout this period as the underlying selling point for most products.

The realities of the Cold War too, made the price strategy work. The abundance of low-priced consumer goods was often touted as a prime advantage of the West over the Soviet block nations where choice was reserved for party apparatchiks. The tale of the Russian émigré marveling at the array of goods in an American supermarket remains one of the most enduring and apocryphal tales of that era. Thus, it was in our national interest to support the culture of well-priced consumer goods.

And finally there was television: the three network model was arguably yet another form of mass production, and the television commercial an excellent way to alert consumers to the existence of yet another well-priced consumer good. For that was always the underlying message: here’s one more fruit of America’s bounty. Yet another great product at a price you can afford.

The formula for serving up that message, devised by Bill Bernbach and others during the early 1960s, and termed the Creative Revolution consisted of a neatly paired combination of copy and imagery that allowed for humor and personality, a dramatic change from the straightforward hard-sell advertising of the previous era. But charming as Bernbachian advertising was, the underlying tone was still delight and wonder at the way our post-war society had made all these goods available to us all.

Look at two of the most famous commercials of the Bernbachian Era: Volkswagen’s “Snow Plow” and Apple’s “1984.” Both spots, despite the obvious stylistic differences, are touting the mass availability of yet another amazing new machine. And of course “mass availability” is implicitly a price message: the Beetle and the Macintosh were not playthings of the aristocracy: they were designed for mass consumption and their (relatively) reasonable prices reflected that. Everyone could have one.

The Price era began to wane in the mid-1990s, due to the confluence of several key events: the fall of Communism meant that the abundance of inexpensive mass produced items was no longer a Western prerogative. The birth of the Web 1.0-era internet allowed for a shopping model based on selection. And the growth of cable television and the resulting loss of share of the major networks meant the common mass culture that had been forged from the 1950s forward was rapidly losing its grip while enabling us to choose media more in line with our specific interests: in other words, Selection.

The next installment will talk about the short-lived Selection era and its effect on marketing and media.

The Shelf Life of Revolutions, Part 2
The Shelf Life of Revulutions, Part 3

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