Warning: This will take longer than 30 seconds to read.
Recently I was at a lunch with an interesting group. Two of the folks were the founders of a start-up and the other two were from an advertising agency. I was present to act as a bridge having been charged with articulating the new entity’s brand. For the next ninety minutes I was highly amused taking in a veritable verbal tennis match between my four lunch mates. At the end, I was more confused by the purpose of the intended business than when I first sat down and said as much.
One of the advertising professionals suggested the founders provide a “30 second elevator pitch”. We were then treated to a string of words that first came across as impressive but really added up to a dense, jargon-laden paragraph of nonsense. I am not sure who chuckled first but it prompted everyone to join in. We all recognized the absurdity of the exercise.
It made me think about the ‘elevator pitch’ concept and the broader, more troubling trend of simplifying almost everything these days. In business this seems to have started with advertising and relates quite closely to radio and television advertisement lengths. The thought being, if you could not get your message across quickly there was something dreadfully wrong.
Now brief, staccato-like messaging has become the norm in communications. This is attributed to the growing number of messages people are subjected to and the range of technologies that carry them. Experts claim that people’s attention spans have dramatically shortened as a result. So logically, somewhat ironically, and hopefully not irreversibly, what we communicated got shorter too.
For years I subscribed to this approach justifying it as beautifully succinct, creative expressions of the highly complex. What I have come to realize is we should actually be sharing and celebrating complexity. Why? Because so much of the effort to simplify the complex only serves to dumb down the original idea.
Alfred North Whitehead, the mathematician and philosopher, suggested the pursuit of simplicity was noble but it should be distrusted. He feared that we would err by dismissing or glossing over the intricate and not easily explained. One of his lesser known observations is that people “think in generalities, but we live in detail.” It is actually the detail that provides value and illumination.
Unfortunately we are training ourselves to think curt thoughts. Publications are now collections of top ten lists and news is an assortment of soundbites. Both leave you hungry. Sure they may compel you to seek further information but more often they are unsatisfying and we drift or surf over to another fleeting topic. William A. Henry III, cultural critic and author, bemoaned this fact stating “even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”
This why I believe notions like K.I.S.S. or “keep it simple stupid” are themselves stupid. Henry said, “In the modern world, the cruelest thing that you can do to people is to make them ashamed of their complexity.” More and more I work with clients to tell their complex stories richly. I am not suggesting it works for all and everything but I am discovering that many audiences of brands are craving deeper content and connection.
This is an opportunity to differentiate. Instead of living in the mindset of the “30 second elevator pitch” brands need to engage with their audiences with thorough and compelling stories. Google’s Think Insights is a fertile outpouring of world changing ideas. HSBC has long been profuse in its communications. The financial institution’s latest campaign, “In the future, there will be no markets left waiting to emerge”, does not shy away from topics most work hard to avoid. They compel with fact and insights, “By 2050, 19 of the 30 largest economies will be in countries we now call ‘emerging’. HSBC’s international network can help you discover new markets wherever they emerge next. There’s a new world out there.”
Unfortunately, mindless simplification continues to be the rule. The ‘elevator pitch’ is employed widely with pundits suggesting it can land you a job, gain customers, attract talent to your business, spark media attention, and create buzz for whatever you are doing. I found one Elevator pitchscholarly article that suggested these mini-pitches must last only 30 seconds, contain no more than 80-90 words and run 8-10 lines. One incongruous instructional video on YouTube takes twenty minutes to describe the half-minute process. The obvious irony is lost on the presenter. Disappointingly, Harvard Business Review posted a blog in February titled, The Art of Crafting a 15-Word Strategy Statement.
Thirty seconds is great if you want to run 200 meters or wish to watch five Vine videos. Insert your own joke here about thirty seconds and lovemaking. The real point is that complex ideas should not be boiled down to irrelevance. We need to end our attachment to slogans and buzzwords that address complexity without unraveling it. Our world is undeniably complex so we do it a disservice by suggesting anything different. Albert Einstein captured this universal tension by saying, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
One of my more recent sad, first-world experiences was losing my luggage between New York and Toronto. The small roller case unfortunately contained a few of my more treasured items. Chief among them was a pair of Prada shoes that I owned for two years but which still prompted buyer’s remorse. I needed many more miles on them to reach a satisfactory ROI as I wore them sparingly.
While the airline was sympathetic and provided a fair settlement for future flights, I was out my shoes. I am sure you have formed the impression that I am loyal to luxury. Actually, not so, I am more an unabashed prep. The Prada shoes were an anomaly and were not replaced.
Recently, I spotted the new Prada spring collection ad campaign in an airport and was drawn in by the richness of the photography and the bold, primary colors that adorn the models. This prompted me to visit their site. The content and architecture is not what you would normally expect. Most apparel companies or online retailers come across as brash and direct in their desire to have you fill a shopping cart and pay with a credit card. Luxury by its nature is not a mass proposition. The higher prices and limited quantities exist to build desire and return healthy margins.
What you will find on the Prada site is more lifestyle than online store. This is no big surprise or revelation. What is interesting is how they are doing it. Of course, they feature their fashions but amazing emphasis is given to “projects” that include The Prada Journal, Production Movies, and Dress Gatsby. There is also a movie by Roman Polanski starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Kingsley. The film called, A Therapy, is presented by Prada.
The number of events they have thrown is staggering. These are not just the expected runway shows but inventive high theater. There is also the brilliantly laid out Prada Book brimming with beautiful images but is basically a clever catalogue that one buys. Then there is Curate, “a unique award launched by Fondazione Prada and the Qatar Museums Authority, is a global search for curatorial talent.” Somewhat off topic is Prada’s investment in the Luna Rossa Challenge. It is an Italian sailboat racing syndicate, created to compete for the America’s Cup with Prada as a sponsor. I had to mention it as a mediocre sailor.
What they are doing is telling a story in a highly unique way. Visits to the sites of Louis Vuitton and Gucci reveal a shockingly traditional retailing approach. You are there to shop with little frills or fanfare. On Gucci’s homepage the boring architecture is: women, men, kids, gifts. Then there is a strategic error of huge proportions. They have a section called “sales”! This is not good. It trains people to wait for discounts which is a no-no in luxury.
With Prada you are immersed in their world. It is an experience meant to convey an artful exclusivity. After all, luxury for all soon ceases to be luxury. Prada tells a more creative brand story to protect its margins while challenging the status quo. There is an enticing mystique to the content and presentation. It draws you in and invites you to be a character. Every brand is a story and Prada knows this. I just hope the guy wearing my lost shoes has some appreciation of the story behind them.
Ski areas and resorts claim a broad range of differentiators. Competition in the industry is fierce and leisure dollars more elusive so it requires creativity and innovation to fill chairlifts. Most ski resort executives will tell you it is all about snow, snow and hopefully, more snow. This assessment is not inaccurate but it is the equivalent of saying everything in real estate concerns location. Much, much more goes into ski resort marketing.
A visit to any ski area website will reveal effusive superlatives detailing the variety of terrain; the speed, comfort, and number of lifts; competing boasts of groomed corduroy and natural bumps; a plethora of ski school programs; après fun; and children’s activities. This gets more complicated as ski areas can either cater to day-trippers or be longer stay vacation destinations. The latter emphasizes accommodations and related infrastructure to get heads-in-beds and skis-on-slopes.
Like any industry, differentiators in the ski business rapidly become commodities. At one time snowmaking was available at only a few resorts. This was as close to a guarantee as one could get in a weather dependent business so soon all resorts made the investment. Ski schools too were once a clear differentiator that in the early days featured rock star directors. Timeshare accommodations are actually a ski industry innovation, as are, terrain parks to attract the once reviled snowboarding population.
In 2002, Park City installed the first zipline at a ski area and now most resorts feature this attraction. Breckenridge claims the highest chairlift in North Amercia. The Imperial Express climbs to 3,914 meters offering access to the area’s best runs. All this says is – it is getting harder and harder to stand out. After skiing at over 25 resorts on 3 continents, I have tempered my expectations and simply crave non-slip washroom floors, hot chocolate under 5 bucks, and lift attendants devoid of cigarette smell. Actually, I have often joked that $1 hot chocolates would be the most effective bit of marketing a ski area could offer.
Over 600 North American ski resorts divide up $3 billion in annual revenue. That sounds impressive but equates to $5 million per resort. Imagine Vail versus your local hill to get a better understanding of the actual revenue distribution. Margins are awfully thin (thus the $5 hot chocolates) and annual growth rates have declined by -0.5% over the last five years.
So what is a resort to do? Most have responded with traditional advertising, experimented with social media, and upped the weekend promotional events. The latter activity is so leveraged that ski areas are now snowy circuses. They are a weird cross between a carnival and car dealership opening. I am jaded by them and believe they distract skiers from the price/value equation of the actual lift ticket.
And herein lies the issue and the opportunity. Ski areas are largely immature in what I consider the most important aspect of the marketing mix, namely pricing. The purpose of pricing is not to recover cost but it is to capture value in the mind of the customer. Unfortunately, ski areas do not consistently make this connection. More often the pricing confuses or turns skiers into skeptics.
Last ski season, Vail Resorts did this with their season pass. Ski Area Management magazine profiled this as one of the worst marketing moves. Vail’s “lowest guaranteed price” deadline came and went four times. And then Vail management extended it a fifth time. When the price finally rose, the increase amounted to $20 or 3% of the total price. This weakened Vail’s credibility and gave skiers cause to question any future deadline.
Pricing matches different classes of purchasers with different levels of perceived and real value. That is why there are variations in pricing at ski resorts, Starbucks and your local car wash. The challenge in the ski business is delivering an experience that meets the Gucci Family Slogan, “Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten.” Yet, though expensive, skiing is not a luxury product. For every Bogner wearing couple where money is no object there are thousands of broke boarders, budgeting families, and busted students.
The most striking issue is ski area marketers confusing discounting with true pricing strategies. Every resort seems clumsy in this regard. It comes across as tactics in desperate search of a strategy. Here are just a few of the approaches used:
- Anniversary specials – both Mont Tremblant and Park City are using their birthdates to add more options (and complexity) to their pricing
- Multi resort passes – there is the Epic pass covering 7 resorts in the Colorado, Utah and Lake Tahoe region and The Mountain Collective of Alta, Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows
- Season pass price reductions by certain deadlines
- Multi ticket options for vacationers
- Weekday and night skiing deals
- Ski and stay packages
The full day lift ticket is a resort’s anchor price. From there, the overabundance of potential deals and discounts are growing as varied and confusing as airplane tickets. Incredibly, Big Sky now has 8 different types of season passes. On top of all this are promotional contests, giveaways and sweepstakes. Then there are passes for front-of-the-line services geared towards fat wallets or pay-by-terrain for those chasing vertical. If this continues, resorts will employ more accountants than lift attendants.
I imagine ski resort executives must dance a jig if they ever see that someone has actually paid the full price for a day lift ticket. When pricing is done right it is nearly transparent to a customer. It is neither, “I got a deal” or “I got ripped off”, it is more akin to Goldilocks – it was just right. I fear that ski resorts have backed themselves into a discounting and deal corner. The long-term result will be erosion of the brand’s value while training skiers never to pay full price or anywhere near it.
Quite simply, ski resorts need to simplify and set pricing. Skiers will appreciate and respond to a more comprehensible and consistent approach. Ski resort marketers need to read The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz to see that fewer options may actually do more for the bottom-line.
One encouraging sign is resorts are staffing up with different talent. Recently, Mammoth Mountain hired Asics’ Vice President of Marketing as its Chief Marketing Officer. Historically, ski resort marketers have come from travel and hospitality so a fresh consumer product mindset may be beneficial. Marketing professionals from apparel and retail know that discounting is a slow route to irrelevancy and slimmer margins.
The greatest piece of marketing inadvertently created by the ski industry was the day pass itself. Once they were stickers folded over little triangles of metal. Now they are clipped on with plastic tags. Day passes originally identified those who had paid to ski. Then they featured some text that indemnified ski area owners against litigation. But the true value of the day pass is as a brand badge displaying the resort logo. Skiers often refrain from removing them because they tell a story. Ski area management has to ensure these passes are not discounted to the point that they become a commodity.
The 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948: based on a survey by the Tagline Guru.
Culture is a giant, asynchronous network of replication, ideas turning into expressions, which turn into other, related ideas.This Explains Everything: 150 Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works edited by John Brockman