Monday, November 2, 2015

Selling by unselling

It isn't often that I get to come on to Round Seventeen and blather on about advertising genius; lately those two words have become an oxymoron.

More surprisingly, I, nor any of my immediate colleagues, had anything to do with the brilliance of which I am about to speak.

Last week, REI announced they would not be opening their doors for Black Friday, the consummate day of shopping after Thanksgiving that often involves random bloody violence, gluttonous consumerism, and long lines of eager buyers camped out in a parking lot with the hope of scoring a 40% discount on a cheap Chinese-made toaster oven.

In other words, the trifecta of Modern American Culture.

But REI -- the leading purveyor of outdoor activity equipment -- will have none of that. While others are zigging, they are zagging. Or in the parlance of mountaineers, they are abseiling while others are jumaring.

Some retailers are following suit and shuttering their doors, but REI, more likely someone at REI's advertising/PR agency told them to make a big stink out of the deal. Because -- and this is the genius part -- it played right into the brand's creedo to get people outside more often.

By forfeiting whatever revenue would normally come in on that day, they would more than make up for it in the 364 other days of the year when their name had been firmly cemented as the go-to place for legitimate sporting equipment.

Not to mention all the free publicity the story generated.

Full disclosure: I am an REI Club Member and pre-disposed to like this brand. Before my yearly camping trips, my wife and I can be found scouring the aisles of the local outlet. She, for new camping outfits. Me, for some clever new device that will eliminate the need to get out of the tent when nature and my small bladder calls.

Years ago, my partner and I were asked to lead the pitch for Hardee's, or as we referred to them, the shoe-less, biscuit-baking Appalachian cousin to Carl's  Jr.

For research purposes, we flew to Alabama or Mississippi or one of the Jew-hating states to sample the goods. It wasn't good.

The food sucked.
But the place where the food was sold sucked even more.

We had this crazy idea: we would walk into the pitch for the $40 million account and tell Hardee's to cut their advertising budget in half. Then, as responsible brand stewards, we would suggest they funnel the $20 million into operations: cleaning up the stores, fixing the broken equipment, and firing the employees who had the enthusiasm of a three-toed sloth.

How refreshing it would be for a client to hear an ad agency forego half the billings for the better long term interests of the company?

Maybe it was because negotiations were still under way with the Holding Company or maybe it was because it was 4 PM on a kegger Friday afternoon when we brought the idea up with our agency "management" but that idea went nowhere fast.

"Are you kidding? That's about 2 million in revenue. I spent that much money on Rosé wine at Cannes last year. Why don't you try to do something funny with their star?"

We didn't win the business.
And for bringing up similar boat-rocking ideas and for being contrarian in general, my partner and I were shown the door.

None of which helped the Hardee's brand.
But in retrospect, Getting Quit was the best thing that ever happened to mine.

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