business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

In the hunt to build our message with customers, we all love to reach for an example that helps explain our case. Heck, we do that constantly here at MNB. The problem, of course, is that some lessons are far better than others. Let me explain…

I love magazines and their ongoing business struggles concern me. Well-crafted magazines can present a depth of information and understanding that is unparalleled by other forms of media. And certainly there are some magazines still flourishing, but the overall combination of short attention spans and reduced advertising budgets are walloping most of the publishing industry these days.

So the magazine industry is responding with eye-catching ads designed to tout the strength of its products. One ad looked like a ransom note, using magazine titles to form the sentences. Another featured a provocative photo (is there any other kind) of Lady Gaga. And now there is one asking a simple question: Will the Internet kill magazines? Did instant coffee kill coffee?

That last one got me thinking and with a little searching, I found that the better lesson on coffee is the very opposite of what the ad promised. Rather, it’s a lesson about what can happen to a product when its core offering is attacked and instant varieties weren’t the cause. In the early 1960s, the average American drank three cups of coffee each day and nearly all was fresh brewed. Twenty years later, instant had grown but coffee consumption was down nearly one cup a day overall. These days (another 20 years down the road), consumption is even lower, with “gourmet” coffee having basically replaced only some of the lost cups.

According to coffee industry websites, most of the decline was caused by crop problems in Brazil in the early 1970s, not to the growth of instant products. The problems drove up prices and drove down supplies of the best tasting coffee. In essence the product cost more and tasted weaker and the result was a movement of drinkers away from coffee. Despite all the Starbucks on all the street corners, coffee consumption remains historically low.

Interestingly, there are parallels for magazines and supermarkets (and many other products). While both industries arguably have better products and services than ever, they are facing consumers who doesn’t get it or want to get it. Today’s younger generations grew up finding information from easy sources like television and now the internet, much as they grew up getting simple meals from fast food providers. Cooking and reading…that seems hard. Only both can and should be very enjoyable.

I thought about a presentation I did recently with Calvin Mayne of Dorothy Lane Markets in Dayton, OH. Calvin’s stores are anything but typical, but no one should lightly dismiss what makes them work. It’s the passion for food that runs through the Mayne family, the DLM staff and even the customers. DLM uses education to teach shoppers about new products, recipes and tastes. Calvin explains how education and creative merchandising made a product like Manchego cheese essential, when years before no one knew it existed. A little education and a little merchandising excitement can change the value equation and in turn breathe life back into products and categories.

You can think of other examples like it. An educated consumer becomes a better customer because they better understand the value they receive and appreciate it more.

It strikes me that provocative photos of Lady Gaga aren’t special and certainly don’t make a great argument for buying a magazine. Somehow the publishing industry has to figure out how to outflank the immediacy and mostly shallow nature of internet news. (Maybe they should read MNB.) Likewise, supermarkets have to understand that an endless parade of price merchandising doesn’t drive additional supermarket consumption. Yes, we have to serve what the shopper values, but we also have teach them what they might aspire to value and serve that too.

That strikes me as a more winning example.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
KC's View: