Mulch Ado

This week, our back yard reaches its high point of the year.  Sure, there is some brown in the grass of our tiny, kidney-shaped lawn — inevitably — but with fresh black mulch just laid down that is still emanating that distinctive mulchy fragrance, and the bright spring growth fresh on our trees and shrubs, our patch of ground looks sharp and edged and well tended.

It will be pretty much all downhill from here.  We’ll have a yard resurgence when the flowers bloom in a few weeks, but without fail the thick coating of luxurious mulch will lose its fragrance and its dark color thanks to the upcoming spring and summer thunderstorms and the bleaching effect of the pounding July and August sunshine.  By the end of the summer it will find itself in unseemly clumps of dried, shredded wood, leaving the beds a pale shadow of their current selves.  The grass will wither and die and vanish into yawning bare spots where new grass will stubbornly refuse to grow, no matter what kind of patch mixture I try.  And by next winter, most of the mulch will have mysteriously vanished on the wings of the winds, leaving the dirt in the beds uncovered and defenseless, to inevitably return to its natural state of a dull gray, brick-like consistency that yearns for another mulchy treatment next spring. 

Where does the mulch go?  Perhaps it channels its inner Hamlet, and simply resolves itself into a dew. It’s something that only a yard specialist could say for sure.  And when did mulch become such a key part of the yard grooming process, anyhow?  I don’t remember the sturdy suburban Dads in the neighborhoods of my childhood spreading mounds of mulch in their obsessive, competitive quests for fine-looking lawns and gardens.  Mulch is another example of the awesome creativity of American businessmen and marketing experts who somehow convinced everyone that their flower beds really required an annual spread of wood chips soaked in come kind of rich biological stew that involves cow flop as a key ingredient.  

But now we’re conditioned.  Mulch is required, so mulch it is.  And, really, the back yard does look pretty good right now.

Skinny Cans

Kish went out to the grocery store the other day and came back with some Diet Coke — but it doesn’t look like any Diet Coke I’ve ever seen before.  This version is packaged in much taller and skinnier cans than were previously used.  The cans are almost as tall as your standard bottle of bottled water and about a third skinnier in diameter.

The redesign of the Diet Coke can seems like smart marketing to me.  If you’re trying to sell your product to people who are watching their calories, why not design a package that fits better with the known aspirations of the purchaser?  If you were hoping to lose a few pounds and were buying some Diet Coke as part of that process, which product design would be more appealing to you:  the squat, sturdy cans that used to be the standard, or these new cans that are notably willowy and elegant by comparison?  Would you rather take a swig from a thickset, brick-like can, or grasp a cool, slender can that looks like it might float away on a light breeze?  I’m guessing that the marketing tests that inevitably were part of the process of rolling out the new can design showed that a lot of purchasers preferred the decidedly leaner cans because the purchasers are hoping to be decidedly leaner, too, one of these days.

When I saw the new Diet Coke cans it reminded me of the introduction of Virginia Slims cigarettes years ago.  Virginia Slims were considerably longer, and skinnier, than standard-sized cigarettes; they almost looked like you were using a cigarette holder.  The advertising campaign for the new brand inevitably showed lissome, obviously sophisticated women clad in evening gowns having their Virginia Slims being lit by handsome gentlemen in tuxedos at elegant parties.  The slenderness of the cigarettes was a consciously planned part of the product — as the name of the brand confirmed — and it was all designed to capture the aspirations of a segment of the smokers’ market.

I don’t know if they still sell Virginia Slims, but I’m guessing the new Diet Coke design will be a success.  If you want to be thinner, why not buy thinner?

Now, what’s with the ginger-lime flavor of this product that Kish brought home?

A Little Edsel Love

IMG_6499Its 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.

IMG_6500So 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.

IMG_6503The 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.

IMG_6504Why 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.

IMG_6502And 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.

IMG_6505

When A Reporter’s Story Makes A Difference

Earlier this week The Associated Press reported that the federal healthcare.gov website — the portal that many Americans have used to search for health care plans under the Affordable Care Act — was sharing private information about users with a number of third-party entities that specialize in advertising and analyzing internet data for marketing purposes.  The AP reported that the personal information made available to those entities could include age, income, ZIP code, and whether a person smokes or is pregnant, as well as the internet address of the computer that accessed the healthcare.gov website.

The federal government responded that the point of the data collection and sharing was simply to improve the consumer experience on the healthcare.gov website and added that the entities were “prohibited from using information from these tools on HealthCare.gov for their companies’ purposes.”  The latter point seems awfully naive — once data gets put into detailed databases on powerful computer systems, who is to say it is not used to help a third-party company better target pop-up ads for their other clients? — and in any case ignores the ever-present risk of a hacking incident that exposes the personal information to criminals.  Privacy advocates and Members of Congress also argued that the extent of data collected went beyond what was necessary to enhance customer service.

On Friday the AP reported that the Obama Administration had changed its position and reduced the release of healthcare.gov users’ personal data.  Privacy advocates remain concerned about the website’s data collection and storage policies and the available data connections with third parties — connections which conceivably could be used to access personal information — but the Administration’s response at least shows some sensitivity to privacy issues and is a first step toward better protecting personal information.

It may not amount to a huge matter in the Grand Scheme of Things, but it’s gratifying when an enterprising reporter’s story can expose a troubling practice and cause a change in a way that benefits the Average Joe and Jane.  It’s how our system is supposed to work, and it’s nice to see that it still work when journalists do their jobs and do them well.

“Cleansing” Versus “Cleaning”

Today I went to wash my hands in the restroom and noticed one of those dispensers of overly scented hand soap. In big bold letters, the dispenser touted the soap as “Deep Cleansing” — which made my teeth grind a bit.

IMG_1880What’s with the trend to replace “clean” with “cleanse”? Virtually any product that approximates the effect of soap and water on human beings now uses “cleansing” rather than “cleaning.” So, you see phrases like “deep cleansing,” or “gentle cleansing.” I’ve even seen an ad in which the actor says she likes “feeling cleansed” rather than “feeling clean.”

Why is this so? “Clean” is a perfectly good word that has been used for centuries. “Deep cleaning” certainly sounds more thorough than “deep cleansing.” So why isn’t it used?

I’m guessing that there are two reasons. First, no doubt advertisers and marketing managers have done studies that show that people will pay more if a product promises “cleansing” rather than “cleaning.” Maybe it sounds more highbrow. Second, “cleansing” has a softer sense to it. “Cleansing” sounds like something that might happen during a gentle spring rain, whereas “cleaning” conjures notions of attacking a dirty item with a stiff wire brush and Mr. Clean. (Of course, “ethnic cleansing” runs counter to this linguistic theory.)

It’s all part of the reason why I like to buy the generic versions of household products. They tend not to be infused with ridiculous scents, they tend not to be packaged in ludicous designs, and if they’re hand soap or hand cleaner, they use those simple, time-honored words. It helps that they’re cheaper, too.

Buying Barack And Marketing Michelle (Cont.)

By coincidence, on the same day that I wrote about the marketing of President Obama, I ran across a news article that, I think, highlights the issue.

According to ABC News, the Obama re-election campaign is suing a website called Demstore.com that is selling t-shirts, bumper stickers, and buttons with the Obama campaign logo.  The lawsuit charges that the website is infringing on the re-election campaign’s trademark.  The article also notes that every sale of such items by Demstore.com means lost revenue for the Obama re-election campaign, and also means a lost opportunity for the campaign to get name, address, and other contact information that would allow  the t-shirt purchaser to be approached for additional campaign contributions later.

The owner of Demstore.com says he’s worked cooperatively with Democratic candidates in the past and is disappointed at being sued.  He says his website supports only Democrats and is used primarily by state and country Democrats who don’t want to pay the high prices charged by the Obama campaign website.  Whereas a single t-shirt on the Obama website costs $30, you can get 500 t-shirts from Demstore.com for $5.49 each.  (I suppose that bit of information tells you something about the Obama campaign’s product mark-up, doesn’t it?)

It’s odd to think that a presidential candidate would object to someone else selling shirts with messages that support that candidate’s election, but we apparently have moved past that innocent notion.  In politics today, business is business.

Buying Barack And Marketing Michelle

The world has come a long way since Joe McGinniss wrote The Selling of the President about the role of marketing in the 1968 campaign of Richard Nixon.  Back then, many people disapproved of that trend and criticized the Nixon campaign for commercializing the serious business of electing a President.

Forty-four years later, the Nixon campaign tactics seem old-fashioned and tame.  Campaigns employ pollsters to gauge public opinion, advertising gurus to target the message as the internal polling indicates, and spinmeisters to try to make sure that public opinion moves the way the campaign wants it to move.  All of this is widely accepted in our digital, hyper-communicative age.

I still balk, however, at the sale of product by presidential campaigns.  Go to barackobama.com (the official reelection campaign website) and you will see a “store” tab.  Click on the tab and you’ll find a wide range of products for sale, ranging from t-shirts and hoodies and ball caps and coffee mugs to an “I Meow for Michelle” cat collar — and that’s just on the first page of items for sale.  Some items are even marked down, and you can get discounts for others if you enter the right “promo code.”

I suppose this is the logical extension of a culture where presidential campaigns last forever and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and fundraisers need to produce money however they can.  I suppose you can even argue that t-shirts are just a logical extension of the campaign buttons of days gone by.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if pushing the President and First Lady as celebrity “brands” detracts from our perception of President Obama as a President.  With the focus on money, money, money, how can you not help but wonder if his decisions aren’t motivated, just a bit, by a cold-blooded desire to sell a new style of t-shirt that gets rolled out a few days later?