Archive for the ‘Marketing’ Category

As the new decade dawned, the war between content creators and distribution channels was heating up on a new front:  Television.

While Fox loudly beat its chest and threatened to pull its programming off Time Warner Cable, at 12:01 am Jan. 1st, without fanfare or warning shot, Scripps Network actually did pull the Food Network and HGTV off of Cablevision.

But unlike what happens when a news organization pulls content from a news aggregator like Google News and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles waiting to take its place, when a cable network like Scripps pulls its content from TV, there’s just an empty hole where yummy goodness used to be.

As in any good conflict, there are two sides. Cablevision accuses Scripps of “effectively holding their own viewers hostage in order to pursue a more than 200 percent fee increase…” And Scripps says the fault lies with Cablevision, and that “every other cable and satellite provider in the country has willingly and professionally renegotiated a fair market rate…” (You can read the full text of the statements from both Scripps and  Cablevision here on paidContent.org, which provides global coverage on the economics of digital content.)

In the case of Food Network and Cablevision, the dispute comes down to less than the cost of a candy bar.

Currently, Cablevision pays Scripps about 8 cents per household to run Food Network. They also pay 13 cents for HGTV according to this very informative article in Broadcasting & Cable about the Scripps Cablevision dispute yesterday.

Food Network, a Top 10 cable network, has seen ratings increase 21% in December among the 18-49 year old demographic, and HGTV increased 13% over the same period. Ratings increases like this can be worth millions in extra ad revenues.

In an attempt to reflect the increased value of their programming, Scripps is asking for an “astronomical” increase of over 200%, or about fifty cents. (Cablevision charges $55.95 for basic cable, which includes Food Network, so you can decide for yourself whether Food Network is worth more than 8 cents a month… or even $0.32.)

Apparently, according to Scripps, Cablevision made a much lower offer that was “take-it-or-leave-it, and would still make Food Network… one of the lowest paid channels on its (Cablevision’s) lineup.”

Of course, as these two giant superpowers fight it out, there’s bound to be collateral damage.

First of all, there are the advertisers who are losing coverage. Don’t cry too much for them, though, because  audiences and ratings are guaranteed by contract, or backed up by make goods. Although if you had a time sensitive offer, let’s say a new product launch in the gourmet food category or home appliance category at the start of the year, a future make-good may not be enough to overcome lost opportunity.

No, as is frequently the case with war, it is the cost in civilian casualties that hurts the most. The real victims of this conflict are the 3 million Cablevision homes in the NY tri-state area: innocent men, women and children who are being deprived of Rachel Ray and Alton Brown.

How can we live without knowing who was victorious in the Iron Chef Super Chef Battle featuring special guest Michelle Obama: Mario Battali and Emeril Lagassi or Bobby Flay and White House Chef Cummerford? Did Paula Dean invent some new way to combine butter, sour cream, mayonnaise and bacon and not die of an instant coronary? What cool, out-of-the-way soon-to-be-overwhelmingly popular joint did Guy Fieri find on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives?

But more importantly, can someone please explain to me how I can make sense of this dispute for my 5-year old daughter, who knows nothing of Gross Rating Points and syndication revenue, when all she wants to do is see Chef Duff and his merry cakesters bake a cake shaped like a kitty cat on Ace of Cakes?

Lands’ End’s Big Warm Up: The best viral video I’ve ever missed

I saw a video the other day that was so good it brought tears to my eyes, which was, after all, its intention. It was so good that it powered Lands’ End customers to bring 33,267 “gently used coats” to Lands’ End shops at Sears to donate to the homeless. (If you haven’t seen it, you can see it here.)

It’s a good video. It’s powerful. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and makes you want to do something good for someone.

All of which is going to make me look even more curmudgeonly than normal, because I am not here to praise Lands’ End.

I think they screwed up.

I didn’t see the video until  Dec. 1, which was one day too late to actually join the Big Warm Up and donate a coat.

And that really bothered me. Because I have a gently used coat I would have gladly donated. And because I was actually in a mall with a Sears the last weekend of the promotion. And because I love good cause related marketing. I love it so much I actually co-wrote a book about it.

I wondered, how could I have missed out on this? I’m a good Lands’ End customer. I have 3-4 pairs of their pants and half a dozen of their shirts. More than that, I’m a fan. I blogged about them back in July and how they helped build direct response retail with their “Guaranteed. Period.” (R) guaranty.

So I went to my inbox (luckily, I try and keep my inbox at a lean, mean 300-400 emails) and sure enough, there it was. And it had company. Lots of company. The Lands’ End email barrage had started on Nov. 9th, and by the time it let up on November 20th I’d gotten 16 emails in 12 days.

But only 3 of those 16 emails were about the Big Warm Up. The rest were about clothes… and canvas.

The first email in the campaign, on Nov. 11, was actually the second Lands’ End email I received that day. It had the subject line, “Save 25% on a new coat & warm a heart!” Being that I’m not currently in the market for a coat, I didn’t notice that this was actually the announcement of a cause related marketing campaign at www.BigWarmUp.com.

In fact, that grand announcement was considerably quieter than the “Introducing Land’s End Canvas” email I’d gotten earlier the same day with a link to a video titled “What Will You Make of It” about the exciting, Ken Burns-ish history of Lands’ End Canvas.

The Lands’ End email tsunami continued. 4 days (and 5 emails) later I got an email with the subject line “What will you make of it?”

This was intriguing, so I opened it. It lead to an interactive site where I could “explore a unique interactive experience — then make and share my own canvas.” Wow. Canvas again.

So when I got the 15th email in 12 days, this one with the subject line, “Join us in making a difference,” I just assumed it was another email about the glories of canvas and ignored it. After all, it had the word “make” in subject line. What else could it have been?

This is a classic case that highlights the dangers of mailing too frequently. Your customers get so overwhelmed they tune out.

30,000 coats donated to the needy is a good thing by any standard, right? So do you think Lands’ End was happy with the results?

I’m not sure I would have been. Here’s why:

Way back in 2002 when Sears bought them, the NY Times reported that Lands’ End had a customer file of 30 million households. Now, not all of those households has email, and that number could be considerably smaller — or larger — by now.

30,000 coats is certainly a lot of warmth, but in terms of results, 30,000 is only 1/10th of a percent of 30 million.

On a more granular level, the email campaign was ignored by at least one ideal target: me,  a repeat customer, who makes buying decisions based on cause-related marketing and corporate philanthropy, who had a coat to donate, and who is clearly on their email list. And if they missed an easy target like me, how many others did they miss, too?

Maybe if the subject line of the first email in the campaign had led with the cause rather than a discount, I might have noticed it.

Maybe if they’d used some of their fancy personalization in the subject line instead of just in their video I might have noticed.

Maybe if they hadn’t bored me to death with their celebration of canvas and trained me to ignore their messages, I might have noticed their worthy campaign to spread the warmth.

But one thing is definite: if they hadn’t sent me 16 emails in 12 days I would have actually read the really important one.  (I’ve asked around, and I’m not the only one who missed this needle in the haystack of Lands’ End emails… or who regretted missing the opportunity to join the Big Warm Up.)

Good cause related marketing is a win-win for everyone. In this case, more coats donated to help the homeless would most likely equate to more coats sold.

This was an important campaign. So can someone please explain to me why Lands’ End quietly buried it under a pile of canvas instead of shouting it from the highest mountaintops?

And while you’re at it, can you direct me to the nearest Goodwill Donation Center? I have a coat I want to donate.

I see them everywhere… on my computer, on billboards, in the pages of magazines and on my TV screen… dead celebrities drinking champagne and dancing with vacuum cleaners and driving cars that came out decades after they were rotting in their graves.

It’s easy to see why advertisers want dead people to endorse them. Dead people are safe: they’re known quantities. It’s unlikely an ad campaign will get torpedoed by new revelations or scandals. They’ll never be accused of sexually assaulting a waitress in their hotel room or getting addicted to prescription pain killers. And even if we did find out something juicy and new about James Dean or Marilyn Monroe or Steve McQueen, would it hurt their image or just add to their mystique?

Dead celebrity endorsements are big business.

Einstein made $10 Million in 2009, according to Forbes latest annual list of top earning dead celebrities.  All the way back in the 2006 edition of the Forbes list, Corbis image licensing said Albert Einstein was their most requested person. As Tony Soprano might say, “Einstein is a good earner.” Of course, in his case, his earnings go to a good cause. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem gets the cash, including a share from Baby Einstein (Disney), although how would Albert have felt about their recent settlement for misleading claims of jump starting juvenile intelligence? Do you think he’d be proud that being a character in Night at the Museum ended up with him as part of a Happy Meal movie tie-in at McDonald’s?

If you want to hire a dead celebrity like Marilyn Monroe to sell your products, just click on over to the Legends Media Archive. You’ll find advertising-friendly images for dead celebs from John Belushi, Ingrid Bergman and Ty Cobb to Jackie Robinson, Mark Twain and Natalie Wood.

Live celebrities are no better. Some of them have even tarnished their reputations by becoming product hucksters. Are you old enough to remember when Orson Welles did commercials for Paul Masson wine: “We will sell no wine before its time.” More recently, we all had to cringe when Ed McMahon made a Cash4Gold commercial his last role.

But whether you think they sold out or not, it was their choice. Nobody forced them to make those commercials.

The dead can’t do that.

These dead celebrities have been stripped of their most basic right: the right to self-determination, to choose what they do or do not do. They are slaves to the choices of their estates, or of the people who own the copyright on their images.

Some cultures honor their dead. We exploit ours.

There’s nothing illegal about it, although the FTC is considering new regulations concerning celebrity endorsements, according to this blog post by Jonathan Faber, licensing expert and former president of “CMG Worldwide, Inc., whose clients include Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Babe Ruth, Chuck Berry, Princess Diana…”

One of the proposed new rules is that “Advertisers should only use endorsements of celebrities if the advertiser believes that a celebrity subscribes to the views presented.” (Not a problem for the Marilyn Dom Perignon campaign, since it was her favorite champagne, or Steve McQueen driving a Ford Mustang, which he did famously in the 1968 cop classic, Bullitt.)

But this post isn’t about morality or legality. This post is about marketing.

The point of celebrity endorsement advertising is to make a connection between the celebrity’s persona, the product and the audience. If a celebrity swears by it, that’s good enough for me.

When done wrong, it can backfire. Who would believe that Paris Hilton ever ate at Carl’s Jr. or that Tiger Woods, one of the richest athletes in history and currently the top earning athlete endorser actually drives a Buick.

When done right, it can build a brand. When Brooke Shields said that nothing came between her and her Calvins, Calvin Klein became the must-have designer jean.

But what’s right about using a dead person to endorse your product? Does having David Spade talking to a now dead Chris Farley make you more likely to want to get Direct TV, or less? How many people went out and bought a Dirt Devil because some art director used special effects to force Fred Astaire to dance with one?

I know vampires and zombies are all the rage these days, but can someone please explain to me why anyone thinks a dead celebrity who never used a product can make a convincing sales pitch to the living?

Has this ever happened to you?

Your commercial for Romano’s Macaroni Grill Dinner Kits is running on a cable tv network like Food Network. Everything is going well, happy people cooking food at home that’s every bit as good as it would be at the restaurant.

“Just add your chicken and cook for 20 minutes. Romano’s Macaroni Grill Dinner Kits… the restaurant favorites that…”

and then, suddenly,

“How rough are your dry cracked feet? Now there’s Heeltastic”… as a woman takes a sandblaster to her bare feet.

Mmmm…that’s tasty.

You’ve just joined the ranks of thousands of advertisers who suffer from Commercialus Interruptus, a tragic, embarrassing affliction that is, sad to say, occurring with increasing frequency among anyone who advertises on cable television.

Why does it happen? More importantly, why does it seem to be spreading? I first noticed it on the Food Network, but now I’ve seen it on Comedy Central, TNT, TBS, USA, CNN and many other stations too traumatized to allow themselves to be mentioned in public.

Uninformed theories abound, some of them no better than old wives tales. Some say the advertiser couldn’t afford the full slot and is willing to settle for less. Some say it’s because the advertiser didn’t pay the bill. I’ve even seen someone post that they think it happens when the person running the commercials at the station is in training and screws it up.

Commercialus Interruptus can happen to anyone, no matter how famous or successul. Whether you’re Billy Mays or Bob the Enzyte Guy, you too can have your pitch prematurely pre-empted by a puzzling 2-second snippet of a mop in bed banging against a radio alarm clock.

The most promising theory I’ve found suggests that the problem arises from scheduling or programming conflicts between commercials that are running nationally at the same time as ones that are just running in local markets.

But there have always been national stations and local affiliates, and there have always been national media buys and local. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember this happening as frequently even a few years ago as it does now. (I refuse to believe it has anything to do with getting older.)

I know what you’re thinking: this could never happen to your commercials. Your commercials run their full 30 seconds and never, ever end prematurely.

But how can you really know? Do you get full playbacks of every single commercial you run? Do you believe the networks would tell you the truth knowing that it would hurt your feelings and, perhaps, damage your self-confidence?

I thought so.

There must be an answer out there. We do not have to simply roll over and allow ourselves to be stigmatized. We do not have to be victims.

So can someone please explain to me what really causes Commercialus Interruptus , and more importantly, what we can do to stop it?

Have you heard the one about the beautiful blonde Danish woman named Karen who went on YouTube in search of her baby’s father, a tourist with whom she had a one night stand a year and a half ago? Turns out it was all a hoax, courtesy of the Danish government tourism bureau, VisitDenmark.

I found out about this on Mashable, perhaps the greatest blog covering all things Web 2.0 and Social Media. According to Mashable, the video got over 800,000 views on YouTube before it was taken down. If you hurry, you can still see it here on this Australian 9 News site.

More from Mashable, “…by her own admission, the woman in the video is an actress named Ditte Arnth Jorgensen and the baby is not hers. According to Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet, it’s a hoax created by the Danish government’s tourism agency… It seems that the Danish government opted for quite a radical approach in luring tourist to the country; as they say, any publicity is good publicity.”

Now, it’s easy to get outraged by the hoax, as comments on the YouTube video proved. There were people who felt sorry for Karen, and then felt abused when they found out it was a hoax.

Setting aside the moral issue, I’d like to look at it from purely a marketing point of view.

I’m not against hoax marketing, if it’s done right and delivers a high degree of value to the people being hoaxed. Sega’s Beta-7 is a classic of the genre. FastCompany did a great post-mortem article about the campaign and Campfire, the viral agency that created Beta-7, and before that, the Blair Witch Project, reporting that:

“Beta-7” ultimately clocked some 2.2 million followers and, for $300,000 (excluding TV spots), helped Sega top sales projections by 25% in a category overwhelmingly dominated by Madden. Along the way, however, Campfire had done something else: It proved that a young, cynical, media-saturated audience just might be willing to listen to marketers as long as they showed some respect. “The virtue of their work,” says ESPN’s Daly, “is that if you’re on the side of the equation that believes [the hoax], then it’s fascinating, and if you’re on the side that gets that it’s not real, then it’s just great entertainment.”

I think the key to successful hoax marketing is best summed up by Harry Anderson, the actor/magician who played lovable con artist Harry the Hat on Cheers and Judge Harry T. Stone on Night Court. Back in the 80’s I saw his live act at Caroline’s, basically a celebration of misdirection and the con. In bit after bit, as he tricked us while blatantly telling us he was tricking us and still got away with it, he made the point that you can take a victim’s money as long as you entertain him for it.

The Danish video certainly delivered entertainment value. It was compelling and engaging. It might deliver a great ROI and boost Danish tourism. (It even had a bit of mischief of which Harry the Hat might have approved: the word “Ad” is in the background as part of an innocuous piece of art.)

But the message it delivered was that the Danish Board of Tourism is willing to dupe you into visiting their country. If they’re willing to do that, what other practices may they condone? Bait and switch hotel packages? Cab drivers who overcharge tourists for trips to the airport? “Official” currency exchanges with rip-off rates?

And how’s this for a mixed message? In the video, Karen says that it was a discussion of “hygge” — the Danish word for a warm, fuzzy, cozy, comfortable feeling of well being (according to Wikipedia) — that led to the one night stand. (Don’t you feel warm and fuzzy knowing that the Danish government is willing to lie to you to get you into bed with them?)

What kind of tourist do you think an advertising message like this will attract to Denmark? If I were a Danish woman (or the father of one) I’d be appalled at my government right about now.

In the end, just because you can use an advertising tactic doesn’t mean you should.

So can someone please explain to me why VisitDenmark chose to advertise the warm and fuzzy nature of their culture with a hoax that is exactly the opposite of the brand character they were hoping to portray?

We had to buy a microwave oven the other day, so I did what I always do before making a purchase: I went online to Consumer Reports.org to do some research. I’m not alone: according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, of the 79% of adult Americans who use the Internet, 81% “look for information online about a service or product (they) are thinking of buying.”

Not all of those pre-purchase researchers go to Consumer Reports, but my wife and I do, just like my parents have always done. This time, though, I was shocked by the results. (I apologize that I can’t link to the results, or that I won’t be mentioning them in this article, but CR is a subscription service, and I don’t wish to violate the terms of use.)

In their Microwave section, Consumer Reports rated various countertop microwaves from multiple manufacturers as Best Buys, and I read the rankings on all of them. Then I noticed Customer Reviews for each model — and that the Average Ratings for the top models were glaringly bad. In fact, the average reviews for all the models rated were bad. As I read the reviews, one common thread emerged:  the customers, all of whom are Consumer Reports subscribers, not only disagreed with the CR ratings and reported reliability, but were genuinely upset that CR had given them information that led to an unsatisfying, and in many cases disastrous or even explosive results. I lost track of the number of “Shame on you, Consumer Reports” type comments I read.

I read all of the reviews, desperately searching for a Microwave that had a positive result. One review mentioned that they eventually found a good microwave by reading the customer reviews on Best Buy, even though the units rated well on BestBuy were not rated well on CR.

So I went to BestBuy.com, read the reviews and found three microwaves that didn’t sound like they’d blow up or die inexplicably whether within or outside of the warranty period. Then I did what Pew says most Americans who research products online do: I went to an actual brick and mortar store to make my purchase. (One side note: while in the store, I heard a Best Buy employee interacting with a shopper. When asked about the GE models, he said something like, “I’d recommend anything we sell except for the GE’s. They’ve been having quality problems for the past few years.” Now I’m not saying that CR rated GE products highly, or even at all, or that there were customer reviews on the CR website that singled out GE for quality problems; I’m simply saying what I heard in Best Buy.)

I left the store, happy and secure in the knowledge that my choice was backed up by the real experiences of real people — a feeling that I used to get from basing my choices on reviews in Consumer Reports.

Before you dismiss online customer reviews as the exclusive domain of malcontents, consider this survey by Bazaarvoice and Keller Fay, user review and WOM experts, reported here on Search Engine Watch:  “…79 percent of reviewers write reviews to reward a company for the quality of the product or service they bought, with 87 percent of the reviews being positive in tone… 97 percent of review readers find the reviews they read to be accurate.”

Customer Reviews are one of the most utilized forms of consumer generated content. When it comes to buying cars, JD Power’s 2008 New Autoshopper.com Study reports that 70% of autmotive Internet users utilize consumer generated content when shopping for a car, with 63% using customer ratings and reviews. (You can download the study here.) Search Engine Watch blogs here that customer reviews are one of the most important sources of product information, second only to word of mouth from a friend.

And before you dismiss the value of Consumer Reports, please consider that they were honest enough to print customer reviews that not only disagreed with them, but openly questioned the validity of their ratings. Those reviews sent me in a direction that led to my satisfied product purchase.

Will I ever use Consumer Reports to research a product before purchase again? You betcha! CR is still a great resource for product and category information, and their testing facilities still provide data that can’t be gotten anywhere else.

Will I ever skip the customer reviews and just read the ratings? What do you think?

But this whole experience leaves me with one unanswered question: Can someone please explain to me why there is such a consistent, category-wide disagreement between the ratings of the professional researchers at Consumer Reports and of the consumers reporting their own experiences with the same products?

Good catalog copy needs to immerse its reader in an experience of a product they can’t touch. It’s a lonely voice in the wilderness, tasked with selling a product in a few words, at a distance, sometimes with the help of a picture.

Sure, if you’re selling copier paper or a toner cartridge in an office supplies catalog, you can get by with just the basics. But if you’re selling hand-stitched honeymoon hammocks made by entrepreneurial Maragucho mothers in steamy Venezuelan villages around Lake Maracaibo, or a $239.95 wooden ship model of The U.S.S. Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” or the softest pillow you’ve ever laid your weary head upon, non-descriptive copy just won’t do.

Your catalog doesn’t need to show your products in photographs, or even in color. Years before Banana Republic had brick and mortar stores, the Zeiglers’ hand-drawn, monotone illustrations on rough-hewn, un-coated digest-size stock built a direct response kingdom based on romance, adventure, intrigue and promise.

So did J. Peterman. Long before Seinfeld satirized him, his first ad was a 1/6 page black and white with a line drawing that appeared in the New Yorker back in the mid 80’s for the Cowboy Duster.

I still remember the last lines of that ad: “Although I live in horse country, I wear this coat for other reasons. Because they don’t make Duesenbergs anymore.” (See this People Magazine article from 2000 for the full story, including the name of the copywriter, Don Staley.)

The instant I read that ad I picked up the phone and ordered two coats, one for myself and one for my friend, noted funny car designer and railroad artist par excellence Tom Daniel.

I was a catalog copywriter at the time, selling wooden ship models and car collectibles at Model Expo, and I learned how to romance and sell just about anything by reading catalogs like Banana Republic and J. Peterman. (My copy for the Navy Issue Coffee Mug in the Lion’s Share catalog — “0:300 hours… the windswept, raindrenched bridge of a ship on patrol in the Pacific…” —  broke all sales expectations for what was supposed to be an impulse item throwaway on an order form.)

I get offended by bad  catalog copy. And there’s nothing worse than catalog copy that doesn’t deliver.

Why am I telling you this? Because I was just reading the black and white, line illustrated  Campmor catalog, my favorite outdoor adventure catalog, and came across the following available colors for hiking boots:  Havana, Jupiter, Gypsy and Brindle.

Now, to be sure, some color names are getting more intriguing, playful and engaging. I can figure out what color Butter is, especially when paired with Cordovan. Mint Green is easy, as is Dark Chocolate. Mud is a bit less clear – after all, wet dirt can come in a variety of hues. I’m pretty sure Limonata will look something like the liquid in those tiny Italian bottles of soda that cost way too much and never taste that good anyway.

But what about Beluga? Is it describing the whale, which is white, or the caviar, which is smoky black? Then there’s Moonstruck, Picante, London Fog, Andorra, Fossil, and Elephant (They don’t say whether they mean African, Indian or Pink. Hey, it matters!). Then there are the blues:  Pearl Blue, Turkish Blue, Brushed Metal Blue, and Goblin Blue. (I’ve played D&D for decades and never once heard of Goblin Blue.)

It’s not just one company. These colors describe boots by Columbia, Merrell, Vasque and North Face. I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to New Balance’s color palate:  Blue, Red, Brown, Black and Grey.

But my absolute favorite obfuscated colors are Havana, Jupiter, Gypsy and Brindle.

I looked at a Google Earth and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what color Havana is. (Unless they were making a sideways reference to skin color, but even then, Cuban skin color varies in the extreme from light to dark.)

I looked at a picture of Jupiter on Google. Do they mean the spot or the bands? And are they looking at the red-tinged color enhanced photos, the washed out grey ones, or what?

Gypsy — I don’t even know where to start, given that traditional Gypsy garb is very colorful and almost never monotone.

The best of all is Brindle. According to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Brindle is defined as “Having obscure dark streaks or flecks on a gray or tawny background.” Mmm, I want a pair of those to go with my Roan pants and Harlequin shirt. (What, no dog lovers out there?)

Look, I love when copywriters romance their descriptions. And I get the problem of making your product stand out from the next when they’re all colored Brown. But what’s wrong with using words that simultaneously describe and romance? Nobody was ever left wondering what color Mocha is, or whether Apricot would look better on your feet than Desert Sand.

I guess I could just go to the Campmor website and look at the pictures to find out what color these colors really are. But doesn’t that defeat the purpose of a printed mail order catalog in the first place?

So, since I’m clearly too stubborn to find out on my own, can someone please explain to me what color Havana is?

Try this experiment. Go hiking on some back country trail one day and ask every backpacker you meet what soap they have in their backpack and what socks they have on their feet. You might be surprised how many of them say Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap and Thorlo socks.

It wouldn’t surprise me, though. That’s because I’m a big fan of both brands. But these days, only one of them makes me happy, and the other has begun to break my heart.

If you don’t know Dr. Bronner’s, here’s a great article that will do a better job than I can of telling you about one of the quirkiest brands on the planet with one of the most loyal customer bases of any product I know. Made from natural ingredients and organic oils, Dr. Bronner’s is sold in nearly every health food store in America. It’s inexpensive, it’s made by hand, and millions of bottles are sold every year with a minimal marketing budget. The company splits much of its profits with its small staff of employees, and gives away much of the rest to good causes ranging from Boys and Girls clubs here in the US to orphanages in China, schools in Mexico, and impoverished villages in Ghana.

The 61-year old company is still being run by the Bronner family, 5th generation, and still being bottled in the same anti-commercial packaging, a bottle completely covered in a cacophony of tiny words, a weird mix of philosophy and quotes from the Bible to Confucius, Chaucer to Paine, creatively adapted by the original Dr. Bronner himself.

Most importantly, the soap delivers the same customer experience it always has. It is an honest product that lives up to its brand promise.

Then there are THOR-LO socks. If you’ve never put on a pair of Thorlos then your feet don’t know what it feels like to walk on clouds. Thorlo socks feel so good and cushion your feet so well that you don’t mind paying up to $18 a pair for them. They’re made in the USA, they’ve never given me a blister, they wick away perspiration and they’ve got task specific models for virtually every type of activity you can do with your feet except swimming.

According to the company website, Thorlos are backed by 25 years of scientific research. The company has spent many millions on R&D alone. They’ve got 59 patents. They trace their roots back to 1953, when they made their first socks in 1953 for the military. The company even supports our troops by letting you buy discounted anti-microbial military versions and send them to the troops with no shipping or handling charges.

I have a couple of pairs of Thorlo socks that are at least 20 years old. I’ve worn them hiking at the top of the Swiss Alps and the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Unfortunately, those 20-year old Thorlos are in better condition than the wimpy 2-year old pairs that are wearing out from just being worn to work.

If you are a long-time Thorlo fan like me, then you know that the quality of Thorlo socks has plummeted faster than the waters of Yosemite Creek plunging over the edge of Yosemite falls. They wear out in the heel and the toe so quickly that if you just stare at them long enough, you may actually see the fibers fall out. Okay, that’s clearly an exaggeration, but it’ s no exaggeration to say that the newer the pair, the shorter the life expectancy.

Both Dr. Bronner’s and THOR-LO have loyal fan bases, from celebrities and athletes (Martha Stewart uses Dr. Bronner’s and Martina Navritalova wears Thorlos) to regular folks like me. You won’t find either brand in Wal-Mart or Target, but you will find them in places like Whole Foods and Campmor, where shoppers demand value and store employees use and swear by the products they sell.

But while one brand has continued to deliver on its powerful, if quirky, brand promise, the other seems to be committed to destroying its reputation for longevity and durability, two of the brand attributes it’s most valued for?

So can somebody please explain to me why nobody at Thorlo seems to have noticed, or if they have, why they don’t seem to care?

UPDATE: 9/8/09

Somebody at Thorlo has noticed, thanks to a nudge from reader Oftenatangent, which got a response from Jim Throneburg Owner/Inventor/COB/CEO, and they do seem to care. See the comments below from Oftenatangent, Jim Throneburg’s response, and one by David Varsik, Director of R&D at Thorlo. Not only did David address my concerns, and admit that the current source for Fibers may not be everything desired in terms of longevity, but he directed me to Susan Graham in Customer Service to get more detailed feedback. I have done so, and after a frustrating experience sending them a comment, Susan got back to me. We had a pleasant, in-depth conversation, and I am sending them some socks for further investigation. I’ll keep you posted.

News outlets make news. But to make money, they wrap that news in advertising.

Anybody else see a disconnect?

As we all know, advertising revenues are down as advertisers shift their dollars to more attractive media channels. And not every newspaper, least of all the NY Times, will be saved by the influx in erotic advertising that is resulting from Craig’s List’s ban described in this article on Adotas.

So I have a suggestion. Newspapers should climb out onto the leading edge of the micro-payments industry in this country and charge us for the news we so desperately need the same way they used to pay their reporters:  by the word.

I wonder what would happen if the NY Times wrote an open letter to all its readers in all formats (print, online, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) explaining that the old advertising model no longer supports the costs of news gathering, and asking us to opt-in to a micro-payments structure that has users pay for content by the word or article.

After all, we pay for our music by the song or album at iTunes and Amazon. Users pay for their apps, too, at the iPhone store.

Maybe our news will cost us 100th of a penny per word — I don’t pretend to know — but there’s a number that would be worth paying to get accurate, valuable journalism, fed into our brains by whatever method we choose.

Faced with the alternative — disappearing like The Rocky Mountain News, turning into an online blog like The Tucson Citizen, or going Chapter 11 like the Chicago Tribune — would the stakeholders of the Times keep the “Old Gray Lady” afloat?

Advertisers could play along too. They could buy prepaid content credits that they would give to their target consumers  — as premiums, promotions, free-downloads, usage credits, rewards points, membership discounts or rewards. When a reader used credits, if they were sponsored, they would see their sponsor’s message.

From a reader’s perspective, it would look like this: Whenever I logged onto the Times website (or followed a Twitter link (A Twink?) etc.) I’d get a screen with that day’s advertisers’ offers. I’d pick a sponsor, they’d pay, I’d get my news, and they’d get my eyeballs. Maybe by the article, maybe by the day, maybe by bandwidth, whatever. (Hey, if Bank of America brought me my NY Times content for free, I’d gladly sit through their pre-rolls.)

These prepaid blocks would represent reliable chunks of income that could be sold through a digital auction model or on an upfront basis, or a combination of both (digital auction for the any inventory left over after the up front sales). A major advertiser could work out a promotion with Amazon that every large format Kindle would come with a sponsored year-long subscription to the Times.

Forwards to a friend could represent extra eyeballs for the advertiser, or extra charges, depending on the media buy.

It is frequently said that people don’t value what they get for free. While that may not always be true, it is true that the Internet has changed people’s cost/value perceptions as it pertains to news.

I am a news junkie. I stopped reading printed newspapers long ago, mostly because they’re outdated the minute they’re printed. And I’m ingesting more of my news online or on my phone rather than be continuously disappointed by cable and network news (which I am watching less frequently). Online, I can get better news faster. And much of that news comes from the NY Times. But I usually only notice the publisher after I’ve read the article, if at all. I frequently don’t even notice whose article it is I’m reading on Google News. Or Digg. Or a tweet.

So, in my desperate search for news, would I be willing to pay for that NY Times article? I would if, like E-ZPass, it was effortless to do. Would I sometimes choose an article from the competition if it were cheaper? Depends on the organization. (After all, I have always had the option to buy a Post or Daily News rather than a Times, and yet rarely did so.) More importantly, would I sit through ads for the sponsored version if it were free? I would.

Format-wise, news gathering and dissemination is wonderfully adaptable to large-format Kindles, Twitter, Facebook, SMS, and more.

But what will happen to the dead trees, and all the personnel associated with their destruction, rebirth, and delivery as newsprint?

Since we’re attempting to reinsert value into the equation, let’s look at it in those terms. Would people find enough value in the printed version to pay more for it? Might the printed version of the Times became such a status symbol that some people would happily pay more to make a conspicuously consumptive statement?

Where is the tipping point? Could the Times sustain a print edition at $10 per copy? Remember, under this model they’re already paying for news-gathering and editing with micro-payments. The printed version just needs to carry its own weight. And if it can’t, then I’m sorry for all those workers along the non-value chain, but it’s time for retraining.

So what do you think? Am I crazy, or could this work? And if so, can someone please explain to me why the NY Times isn’t already doing it?

Hi there, everybody. My name is Jeffrey Lee Simons, and I don’t have an iPhone. You see, my fingers are the wrong temperature or something and touch screens only work for me about 20% of the time. You’ve probably seen me at an ATM, stabbing my useless digits at the screen and cursing a blue streak until I remember to use the keypads.

(What uber-phone do I use? LG Voyager… it’s got a touch screen, but flip it open and you’ve got a full keypad.)

So I’ve missed out on the whole iPhone App feeding frenzy. Although I’m not sure exactly what I’ve been missing. After all, the average iPhone app only gets used about 19.9 times in its lifetime according to this article on marketingcharts.com.  “The study also found that 46% of users play their games/apps five times or more, while 10.2% play 25 times or more.”

I just read a detailed discussion about the economics of iPhone game apps in Gamasutra, the gaming business enewsletter, written by iPhone-appmaker Ian Bogost.  Game apps are among the most popular of all iPhone apps. (12 of the top 25 apps in Feb 2009 were games according to a recent Comscore report.)

Bogost tells a woeful tale of plunging sales (down 8% in April alone) and a race to the bottom for both pricing ($0.99 seems to be the target)and quality. The average net profit on an iPhone app is $1771, and for a game app that figure is closer to $900. That’s average. The difference between the hits and the not-hits is so wide that the median may be much lower, though Bogost admits this is hard to determine.

$900 or less. (Apple doesn’t even distribute royalties until you hit $250 in each region, so for many game developers, there’s no profit at all.)

Now while I haven’t ever produced an Apple iPhone Game App, I have produced a variety of games in my life, from advergames that took a minimum amount of time to historical simulations that took a tremendous amount of time. But at no time would I have looked at $900 or less profit as a sustainable business model.

Hoping and praying to be the breakout game among the multitudes is fun, to be sure, but makes for a harsh, ridiculously competitive and ultimately indefensible business strategy. (Although it sounds a bit like blogging. Or publishing. Or the music industry. Or…)

But the most insightful aspect of Bogost’s article concerned perceived value and customer satisfaction. People who are willing to shrug off a bad cup of $0.99 coffee hold a $0.99 game app to much higher standards. One is clearly disposable, and for $0.99 who really cares enough to complain. The other is not, and is far more likely to garner complaints (especially now that Apple lets people “comment after deleting” an app).

All this really comes down to value.

How much value can an app developer deliver for $999 or less? How much value does a customer deserve for $0.99 these days? Does using a product 19 times make it disposable or not? After all, you probably use a razor blade that many times before throwing it away.

And the answers, it seems, comes from where they always do. The customer. If a customer feels a product isn’t worth the money, they buy the lower priced versions. More people buy Toyotas than Rolls Royces, although to be sure, there is a market for both.

It looks like, in Apple-land, $0.99 is the acceptable price for everything from games to songs. Regardless of their cost to produce, you’re expected to make it up in volume.

But can someone please explain to me how consumers can ever expect to get value out of a system that refuses to return value to the producers?