Friday, December 27, 2019

Product marketing failure due to a merger


Here is an example of what is probably my most frustrating pet peeve.  As a marketing and product-design professional this irritates me more than just about anything else in business - the replacement of one perfectly good product with a worse-designed, inferior one as a consequence of a merger or corporate buyout.

Eldon 10484 Simplifile file box, no longer available
Eldon 10484 Simplifile box

The first picture is of an Eldon Storage ‘Simplifile’ file box, which accommodates letter-sized documents, including in hanging files, in a sturdy tote that will keep out rainwater and spills and can be easily carried by someone who’s already got his hands full.  I have two of these, one for business and one from when I taught school.  This thing is invaluable to anyone who must lug about a lot of papers and forms. 

Note that the box’s handle is fastened to the sides of the box body - in fact when the handle is rotated to vertical it locks the lid closed to avoid inadvertent spills.  More importantly, the sides of the box - from which the files inside depend - bear the weight of the load inside.

Rubbermaid 39346ROS file box, no longer available
Rubbermaid 39346ROS file box

The second one is of the Rubbermaid product that replaced the Simplifile box when Rubbermaid absorbed Eldon.  It has a similar capacity and has sold for a similar price.  Note the very crucial design difference. The Rubbermaid box’s handle is fastened directly to the lid.  It isn't as useful (you can't hook it in your elbow) and it will leak rainwater through the handle points in even a light drizzle (destroying the paper inside).  Worse, all of the weight of the load is borne by the plastic catch that holds the lid closed.  If this catch were to fail (from weight) or not be completely or correctly closed, lifting the box will result in a spill, exposure to the elements, a loss of security, and so on.  By design the Rubbermaid box has no benefit over the Eldon one - in fact it is technologically inferior in major ways that matter to the consumer. 

The Eldon Simplifile boxes are no longer made.  ALL small file totes of this general size on the market today are made with the handle mounted to the lid, which is the worse of the two designs.  When Rubbermaid took over Eldon, no one at Rubbermaid thought to evaluate the Eldon design and to consider that, just maybe, the intellectual rights they had just acquired meant they could produce a superior product to the one they had been making through Rubbermaid.  Why did they even buy the company?  My guess is that they meant to put Eldon out of the market, since Eldon had been making too smart of a product to coexist with the Rubbermaid range.  This shortsighted, fear- or ego-driven mentality is more common in industry than most people think.

I first became aware of the stupidity of corporate marketing schemes when, in the 1970s, under Pepsico Foods, Kentucky Fried Chicken merged with Roy Rogers Hamburgers, and they eliminated the very good RR French-fried potatoes and kept only the greasy KFC ones.  They had both available; and for no sensible reason they chose the inferior one.  Since then I have found that there is never a true ‘merger’; the stronger company always seeks to eradicate the other company from the market, as though that is the primary reason for the buyout.  Almost never is it a move to gain new technology or to expand selling channels (the 1980s-1990s Chrysler/Jeep/AMC/Mercedes-Benz combo being an exception).  And, worse, you can take for granted that the better of the two companies’ products will be the ones that will NOT continue in the new market landscape.

Sadly, real-world marketing isn’t usually about making terrific products of clear intrinsic value available to a broader customer base.  It’s more likely based in fear, perception, and a perpetuation of that age-old logical fallacy, ‘If it doesn’t sell, it’s because it’s bad.’  More likely the case is ‘If it doesn’t sell, it’s because nobody is actively promoting it.’  When you think of all the truly BAD ideas (Lincoln Navigator, Microsoft Windows, steel entrance doors, VHS, everything about Comcast) that have been aggressively promoted over the technically superior alternatives, you wonder why, when the difference is so clear and, due to a buyout, so readily available, the dominant company won’t accept it and won’t move to benefit from it.  But the fact is that most often they don’t.

The truly intelligent marketer will recognize potential gain in every new idea that stands as though in opposition to its competition.  If it’s a rival’s idea, one should accept it for its virtues, identify what makes it good, and work to develop something that builds on those ideas and is even better.  If it’s one’s own company’s idea, one should take every opportunity to promote it assertively, to enlighten the public about its unique features, and to encourage comparisons and competition in the marketplace.  That's called 'innovating' and 'driving the market'.  Remaining complacent, letting the market drive the company, living in denial about the superiority of the competition’s product or procedure is lazy, even stupid.  Such marketers don’t deserve to be in the marketplace at all - for ultimately they deny the buying public access to better products and services that, though within grasp, were shelved due to reasons that have nothing to do with improving customers’ lives and making profit into the bargain.

I’m not afraid of different ideas that appear unusual, even quirky, when compared to the current market.  I view promoting them as a challenge; and as a former classroom teacher I have the ability to ‘talk up’ the benefits of good ideas that fly in the face of the competition-maintained status quo.  If we don’t offer these choices, on a level playing field, to the discerning public, how do we know we’re not missing out on plenty of opportunity - in a market in which we may well hold the upper hand?

Call me; and we'll see how we can promote your best ideas in the best light.

- JC2

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