business news in context, analysis with attitude

Last Friday’s “OffBeat” contained a brief and complimentary mention of Apple’s decision to use a television commercial for its iPod Touch that was conceived, and originally posted on YouTube, by an 18-year-old British student. And I wondered 1) How many customers feel so passionate about your business and products that they actually would produce a commercial about them? And 2) Have you ever though of sponsoring a contest that would encourage your customers to do just that – create a TV commercial, with the winner getting some sort of relevant prize? Sounds like a good idea to me.

One MNB user responded:

My comment is that it is two different perspectives - someone passionate enough to create original content about a brand they connect with, and to try and get that out of people through a promotion or contest. Dorito's did it for the Super Bowl Ads last year, and while it was kind of fun, it just wasn't the same as having someone motivated by brand passion rather than by a contest. From what I read, some of the Dorito's finalists were marketing professionals, doing what they do everyday. It just strikes me as being less authentic, or primal as you aptly described in the Midwest Express Cookie story. I truly believe marketing opportunities like the Apple fan's devotion are like lightning, powerful, beautiful and near impossible to catch and harness, when you can, great!

Agreed. It is lightning in a bottle, and impossible to manufacture.

On reflection, I think that my first question actually was the better one, that a central goal of any retailer ought to be creating an environment that can incite that kind of passion. To aim lower seems to me to be unacceptable.

I’m not a retailer, but that’s sort of my goal here on MNB. I don't know that I often achieve the goal, but that’s what I aim for…and the pursuit and the process are what make this fun – for me, and hopefully for you.

I guess here’s where I come down on this issue. So much of retailing is chemistry, and as such, it works and is generally pretty functional. But great retailing is magic…and ultimately, magic is a helluva lot more fun and interesting than chemistry.

By the way, don't ignore the role in all this, because it remains a powerful marketing force.

I got the following email responding to last week’s story about the ongoing legal troubles of former Wal-Mart vice chairman Tom Coughlin, who now seems to be facing jail time as he courts have determined that home confinement was simply too lenient fro someone convicted of fraud:

Why is it that when wealthy executives & politicians steal they seem to be given the benefit of the doubt?

Coughlin is a criminal. Plain and simple.

The local punk who robs a seven eleven gets several years for stealing a couple hundred bucks. Every week you see shoplifters names in the paper for stealing $50 or $100 worth of stuff from the local Wal-Mart.

Why is it that the executive who steals $500,000 gets sympathy and pity (especially if he is older) for his actions. This is incredulous.

Here you go, put Coughlin, Governor Ryan (the embarrassment of Illinois) and Michael Vick all in the same cell. If it costs taxpayers $50,000 a year to keep a prisoner incarcerated, let these rich boys pay for their stay. If they want to do community service, like wash out port a johns at the local park, then fine, community service, then back to the cell at night.

If Albertsons is after someone for a few jelly beans, why should there be any tolerance from society for $500,000 theft?

The jelly bean point is a good one, and I hadn’t thought of Coughlin’s sentence in those terms.

Had a story last week about how Sendik’s Food Markets will begin carrying the chocolate chip cookies famously served by Midwest Airlines on its various flights. According to the story, Midwest Airlines Genuine Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough will be available exclusively at a new Sendik's location being opened in Franklin, Wisconsin.

My comment: I’ve had these cookies on various flights, and they’re terrific.

That said, I’m not sure they are any better than any other chocolate cookie I’ve ever eaten. What makes them stand out is that when you’re sitting on a plane and that smell wafts through the air, and you’re offered the opportunity to have cookies and milk, you can't help but melt – it is like being in third grade all over again, and you remember coming home from school, walking into the kitchen and finding mom busily making cookies while she’s cooking dinner. It isn’t an intellectual memory. It’s primal – and that’s what makes it work. It soothes the savage beasts who are crammed into coach.

That’s the lesson of these cookies. Aromas sell. Sensory experiences sell. The retail experience can be like being crammed into coach, or it can be something special, something different.

I know which kind of store I would choose to shop in, and I suspect that most people in the industry would make similar choices. And yet, when it comes to developing stores, they opt for coach-class operations. That’s a shame.

MNB user Sally Malchow wrote:

I would say chocolate chip cookies are one of my top favorite foods and yes, the Midwest cookies are good. But, even a bad cookies are good when served warm!

What I thought you were going to say is that what makes the cookies special is the environment in which they are served. When your senses are both deprived and overloaded from travel, it does not take much to make an impression of comfort. So, given the fact that there are other, just as good cookies already sold at retail, it will be interesting to see how the Midwest cookies do. With the absence of aroma (in most stores) and in the refrigerated aisle with everyone else, it is no longer the special experience. Will the branding be strong enough to survive outside of coach?

Maybe for a bit. But I don't think this is a long-term play.

Another MNB user wrote:

I'm quite familiar with Midwest airlines, as my family lives within driving distance of their Milwaukee hub. You've hit the cookie experience on the head: I wouldn't ever mistake them for my mother's cookies, but they make the flight unique, and that aroma sure beats the smells wafting on other airlines. I have one area of contention, however. Midwest Airlines used to configure planes exclusively to business class standards (signature service) at coach fares: big leather seats, no middle seats, good pitch and a price that was competitive in the market. These flights were excellent. They've gotten away from that recently with their "saver service", which features the standard coach configuration.

Sadly, my route from Phoenix to Milwaukee is a "saver service" flight and not the signature service. I used to be 100% loyal to Midwest and have their MasterCard to boot my miles. Now I shop on price because Midwest no longer offers a differentiated product. Looks like the bean counters are homogenizing another industry...

Sounds like a classic case of a marketer going for the lowest common denominator instead of reaching for the differential advantage…

MNB user Steven Ritchey wrote:

As for aromas in grocery stores, years ago in Tom Thumb we would make sure to be baking cookies and bread when school would let out and all the parents would be flooding into the store. My brother, who used to be a Meat Market Manager for them would have his smoker going making smoked sausages and chickens. The Kroger I currently shop at, on weekends has a man out front with a charcoal grill, grilling chickens and ribs. These are all wonderful aromas that make you want to buy something good to eat.

Milk and just baked cookies on a airplane, what a great idea, of course at our age we would have to limit ourselves to just one cookie, and the milk would have to be low fat, damn this getting older…

Sad but true.

By the way, speaking of getting older, thanks to all of you who sent along birthday wishes last Friday. I’m not sure how – or why – you remembered my birthday, but I was and am genuinely touched.

KC's View: