Its name is right up there with the Titanic: a proper noun that, as a result of unfortunate circumstance, has morphed into popular language as a shorthand reference for disaster. In this case, it is a corporate disaster — a highly marketed, ridiculously expensive roll-out of a new product that utterly fails to appeal to the masses. It has endured for almost 60 years as the ultimate business failure, has survived challenges by New Coke and Betamax VCRs and countless other duds, and still tops the lists of absolute flops.
So when I saw a vintage, perfectly preserved 1958 Edsel — the year the car was first introduced to the American public — parked on the street yesterday, I just had to stop, give it a close, 360-degree inspection, and take these photos. It was a big, gleaming, two-toned, orange-and-cream-colored beauty, with plenty of chrome that caught the sunlight just right — a classic example of a ’50s-era American car.
The reality is, the Edsel is a beautiful vehicle, and its allure is made all the more intriguing by the scent of failure and catastrophe that lingers around it. I wasn’t the only passerby to stop, give a low whistle, and check it out.
The back story of the Edsel is a familiar one. Named for the son of Henry Ford, the Edsel was an effort by the Ford Motor Company to introduce an entirely new car brand that featured new approaches to standard car features. Ford and GM were in their glory days, and GM had a family of car brands that would allow car-hungry, upwardly mobile Americans to progress from the cheaper ones all the way up to Cadillac. Ford, on the other hand, had only three brands — Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln. Ford’s “dream big” solution was to create an entirely new brand.
The Edsel was heavily promoted in advance, in one of the first huge, post-World War II marketing campaigns, with ads that featured tantalizing pictures of shrouded models and suggested that America was on the cusp of an entirely new driving experience. Then the Edsel was finally rolled out, with great fanfare, on one day in September 1957.
And the Edsel bombed, completely. It was such a colossal failure that, despite sinking huge amounts of money into the effort, only a few years later Ford recognized the inevitable, production on the Edsel ceased forever, and its name entered the lexicon as synonymous with corporate catastrophe.
Why did the Edsel fail? Countless people have weighed in on that core question, and no doubt the Edsel is still and will always be a case study in MBA and Marketing programs across the country. And people have identified lots of potential reasons. The economy was just moving into recession as the Edsel was introduced. The marketing campaign had raised public expectations so high that no product, no matter how great, could possibly match them. The Edsel was too technologically advanced, with a push-button transmission set-up in the middle of the steering wheel and other novel features. Ford tried to do too much by creating an entirely new car brand, with 18 new models and more than 1000 brand-new dealerships.
And some of the reasons even target the American car-buying psyche. Some people argue that the top-of-the-world Americans of the ’50s were looking for huge, overpowered, rolling phallic symbols that would serve as tributes to their masculinity. The Edsel’s distinctive front grille, they say, not only did not have the phallic element that Americans instinctively craved, but in fact suggested the exact opposite.
Why did the Edsel fail? I’m glad to leave that question to the academics and armchair psychologists and marketing gurus and corporate planning executives. All I know is that when I see an Edsel on the street, I’ll gladly give that low whistle and take a good look at what remains a very cool car.
When I was in junior high school, I took a class called General Business where the teacher taught us about the marvels of capitalism and the wonders of the stock market. After I took that class, I had one goal: I wanted to own some stock in a company.
I saved my pay from high school jobs and talked to Uncle Tony, who was a stockbroker. He identified three stocks that were cheap enough that I could buy a decent number of shares, and I picked one called Vikoa, for a company that sold a product related to cable TV. I figured cable TV, which we had at our house, was likely to grow and prosper.
It was a great day when my fancy Vikoa stock certificate, made out to my Mom in my name because I was under age, arrived at the house. Vikoa’s stock was listed on one of the smaller exchanges, so every morning at breakfast I could check the listings in the Columbus Citizen-Journal to see how my investment was doing. For a time, Vikoa seemed to thrive and its stock went up — so much so that I decided that I should make another investment, this time in a new restaurant chain called Pizza Hut that had opened near our house and made pretty good thin crust pizza.
The Pizza Hut investment turned out well and earned a profit, but not so much for Vikoa. Its stock plummeted — in those pre-internet days, I never found out why — and ultimately it vanished entirely from the exchange listings. I later got another stock certificate, for some fractional interest in a different company that apparently had bought whatever was left of Vikoa, then that company also went under. My investment had failed.
I made money on one investment and lost my shirt on the other, but I was young and didn’t mind. My investing days were over until I started working after college and law school and considered how to plan for retirement — and then the teachings from General Business class and the specter of Vikoa resurfaced. I decided that rather than take a chance on a single company again, I’d just invest in mutual funds, where the fund manager picks the investments and keeps track of their performance. That’s been my practice ever since. The Vikoa lesson was one I didn’t need to learn twice.
The other day when Kish and I were out and about I sat at a table and a napkin dispenser invited me to take a “one-minute survey” about my experience in Columbus. I groaned and silently resolved to not take the survey — but here’s the link to it if you feel differently.
Modern Americans must be the most surveyed group in the history of the world — or, at least, the most survey-solicited group ever. These days, surveys are inescapable. Every activity seems to generate a request for you to provide follow-up information. Take your car to be serviced, and you then get a phone call the next morning asking you to answer “just a few questions” about the experience. Stay at a hotel and get an emailed questionnaire along with your electronic receipt and an earnest request from the general manager that you complete the questionnaire to allow them to enhance the hotel experience. And some websites use answering survey questions as the price of website admission — one that I simply refuse to pay.
I try to be a polite person in my interactions with the working people of the world, just as I hope they will be polite with me. The constant requests for information, however, seem to be an imposition on our politeness and civility. I cheerfully answered “feedback” questions from my car dealer service department the first few times, then started to say no when I realized that I would be called and questioned every time — and recognized that if I took the time to answer every “survey” that was thrown in my face it would consume a measurable chunk of my day. I also began to suspect that many of the requests weren’t really for meaningful feedback, but rather sought to get consumer information that could be sold, or used to solicit me for other services. And I realized that the more generic on-line “surveys” couldn’t possibly yield scientific results and more likely were geared to increase the click-count on websites that could increase their ad rates as a result.
So, I’m not going to take the “one-minute survey” about Columbus, thank you very much. Kish and I like it here. What more does anyone need to know?
Richard has started his new job at the San Antonio Express-News, and one of the first things he’s done is restart the blog “Shop Talk,” which will collect news about developments in the retail sector in San Antonio. His first post on the blog is here.
A lot of newspaper work these days is in the social media sphere, on blogs, Twitter feeds, and other outlets that I can’t even begin to identify. The reality is that many young people are getting their news electronically, and social media also allows news to be published immediately, rather than waiting until next morning’s newspaper.
The retail area, too, is one that is interesting to most people. Many of us worked in retail at some point in our lives — as a server in a restaurant, as a cashier at the grocery store, or as a sales clerk at a clothing outlet — and virtually everyone shops at retail stores. As a result of our significant exposure to retail shops, some questions are just intrinsically interesting, like — how much does shoplifting cost stores, and what are the costs, in reputation and potential liability, in pursuing an aggressive no-tolerance policy? Are all employers requiring applicants to take drug tests and no-smoking pledges these days? And is it true that clothing manufacturers, recognizing that Americans are becoming portly, have increased the sizes of clothing, so that what is now marked a 32 waist would have been a 34 waist three years ago?
If you’re interested in retail trends, the Shop Talk blog is worth following — as is Richard’s Twitter feed.
Columbus is blessed with lots of really good local coffee houses. Kish and I particularly prize Stauf’s Coffee in German Village, which roasts its own beans, has a wide selection for every kind of coffee taste, and then grinds the java to order depending on the kind of coffee maker you use and whether it uses a basket or cone filter. It’s got pretty good baked goods to go with the brew, too.
Experience Columbus, one of the local booster organizations, has teamed up with some of the Cbus coffee shops to offer The Columbus Coffee Experience, which aims to encourage the uninitiated to sample some of the finest joe you can get anywhere. The participating beaneries are Boston Stoker, Impero, Mission Coffee Co, and One Line Coffee, all of which are in the Short North, Cafe Brioso, Cup O’ Joe, and Roosevelt in the downtown area, and the Stauf’s shop at the North Market.
I’m a big fan of both Stauf’s and Cup O’ Joe, and there are lots of people at our firm who are stone-cold Cafe Brioso java junkies. I’ve not tried the other places, but if I take my Columbus Coffee Experience booklet and have it stamped after trying the fare at four of the establishments, I can stop by the Experience Columbus office and get a free Columbus Coffee Experience t-shirt. Sweet!
It’s a small promotional effort, as promotional efforts go, but it’s a simple way of getting folks to recognize a little part of the great stuff Columbus has to offer, and support local businesses, besides.
Today I noticed that one of the businesses I pass on my walk to work has a logo that consists of “T&A” over a stately Greek column. The “T” stands for a person’s last name, and the “A” stands for “Associates” — so there’s a legitimate reason for the “T&A.”
Still . . . T&A? It’s memorable, I’ll give it that. Any red-blooded American male is not likely to forget that name. Of course, whether they associate the name with this particular business, or with something else, is another matter.
Obviously, the brand is fraught with lots of baggage and is, well, easily misconstrued. For example, let’s suppose, hypothetically, that this specific company wanted to hold a holiday party to thank their clients for another successful year. How many clients are going to want to get an invitation to the “T&A party,” especially if the invitation is delivered to their home address? Who wants their secretary to see a calendar entry for “T&A meeting,” or have someone overhear them talking about “T&A”? Do they answer their phone “T&A. How may we help you?” Do their marketing brochures say “If you need help, call for T&A”?
You’d think someone, somewhere, sometime, would have suggested that “Big T Associates” might be more suitable.