business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Every so often we get to watch the game of marketing change slightly. We see a company or organization venture out of the box and we wonder: can it work, should it work and, if so, why didn’t we think of it first.

Let’s be clear, this isn’t about violating laws. There are rules and laws that must be obeyed and I’d passionately argue that many of the economic troubles we are in today have been caused precisely by people forgetting that right and wrong do exist. Instead, I’m talking about attacking old conventions and finding advantage where none existed before. The opportunities are all around, but are rarely obvious. Let’s take three recent lessons: “American Idol,” Jay Leno and Jif Peanut Butter.

It’s hard to believe there could possibly be any lessons learned from television these days, but “American Idol” and Jay Leno offer two. Let’s start with the former.

“American Idol,” for those of you who don’t follow it, is the current kingpin of primetime television, if such a thing even exists. It is ratings gold and its network, Fox, knows it.

So last week, Fox decided to fight a little un-fairly. On the night ABC was debuting one of its rating giants, “Lost,” Fox created a little problem: it ran “Idol” for an extra three minutes. Doing so - and doing the same for the show following Idol - meant that a chunk of the television audience unknowingly missed the first six minutes of “Lost.” That’s an interesting lesson in how to compete: use your best asset to keep shoppers from the competition. (By the way, the move worked and the ratings for “Lost” were hurt.)

Of course, the downside is equally simple. Viewers of both “Idol” and “Lost,” if they don't happen to own DVRs or have access to iTunes, might rebel against this heavy handed treatment, although anything like that has yet to happen. History is shown that it only works for so long – the extra minute or two add-on is a technique that has been employed by NBC for years, and right now NBC’s ratings are pretty much in the basement…because it doesn’t seem to be making many shows that people want to watch. So the cautionary tale works both ways.

The Jay Leno example is more complex. Leno will soon be leaving his 11:35 “Tonight Show” slot and moving to a new 10 p.m., Monday-through-Friday slot on NBC. Television critics have decried the move as a sign of NBC’s inability to create new shows that can draw a primetime audience. (See the problem cited above.) In addition, Leno’s show will be far less expensive to produce.

But there is another side. As we know from stores and products, changing population patterns produce changing needs. And it’s very likely that aging Baby Boomers aren’t staying up for an hour-long show beginning at 11:35. It is also quite likely the younger generation remaining up at that time is more likely to turn to Stephen Colbert or Leno’s replacement, Conan O’Brien. But change comes with risk, as we also know from stores and products, and it’s possible that Leno’s move will simply make David Letterman more popular than ever. Or it might force CBS and Letterman to consider a similar move.

Taking on conventional wisdom came to our industry last week thanks to Jif Peanut Butter. No doubt, Jif was facing a huge problem over the past few weeks. The media was constantly reporting on the salmonella outbreak involving peanut butter products and while the point was made consistently that jarred peanut butter was completely safe; we know people have a tendency to miss part of the story or to misinterpret it.

So Jif bravely stepped on the third rail of food marketing and ran a simple ad proclaiming: “You Can Trust Jif.” (The website of Jif’s parent company, JM Smucker, was equally direct.) In short, Jif said there is a problem, but not with our products.

Like it or not, food safety has become a constant issue and all parts of the food chain must do everything possible to ensure food quality. Various research studies have shown that the problems that come up diminish the overall public trust in our system. But that doesn’t mean the issue can’t be discussed.

Sure, Jif’s ad could be viewed as risky, highlighting a product that is sitting in the middle of the media spotlight. It’s doubly risky in that there is no way of knowing where the next food safety problem will occur. But it also could be seen as brilliant, helping consumers better understand the problem facing them and the choices they can safely make. And Jif is putting a stake in the ground saying, trust us.

Just as with “American Idol” and Leno, there is risk in acting, but there’s risk in doing nothing, too. A new day calls for new tactics and new strategies, whether it’s on primetime television or in the grocery aisles. Wake up; it’s a new day.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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