By Mary Aviles
Two recent articles in the New York Times business section got me thinking about the importance of saying NO.
The first article was about children’s toy manufacturer Melissa & Doug. The focus of the article was on the company’s intentional avoidance of digital- or character-based growth opportunities. As one of their founders put it, “That would be selling out.” As both a consultant and a consumer, it warms my heart to hear that! I love it when I hear about a brand sticking to their guns, because that implies intentionality and discipline. It signals that their focus is on the long term and that they care how their consumers perceive them. The article also cites a key consumer insight, which reflects my own perception of the Melissa & Doug brand: a consumer said, “she bought [their toys]…as a good-for-you plaything, akin to buying healthy, organic food.” What a rich verbatim! I wonder if they’ve quantified that sentiment and factored it into their marketing strategy?
Still, there have been other growth opportunities to which they didn’t say no. As the article points out, Melissa & Doug made a conscious decision to shift their distribution base from mostly boutique toy stores to a much larger presence in the big toy store chains. This was a major change for the brand and did impact their position. Though, I suspect internally survival influenced this move such that they adjusted their position to embrace the changing distribution landscape. Boutiques were struggling and closing and purchases from Amazon and Toys ‘R Us were rising. This change in position, while likely resulting in a major perception change (probably negative) among distribution partners, was likely mostly appreciated by consumers who now had much better access and exposure to the company’s toys (and prices were probably lower as well).
The other aspect of Melissa & Doug’s position that appeals to me is their reliance on observation. Apparently, one of their “hottest items is a set of [grocery] cans,” a product which was developed when Mrs. Bernstein noticed them missing from available pretend grocery goods. As parents of six children, they have ample in-home opportunities to observe children at play. In fact one of their other product ideas—a line of sand baking toys—evolved out of watching her own children pretending to bake in the sand using old spice jars. While some in the industry have suggested that Melissa & Doug are not innovative (a slight which understandably bothers Mrs. Bernstein) I would argue that this observation-based product development is highly innovative.
The second piece that caught my attention concerned Universal Studios’ release of a V.I.P. Ticket, which includes “valet parking, breakfast in a luxury lounge, special access to Universal’s back lot, unlimited line-skipping and a fancy lunch.” This was juxtaposed with nearby competitor Disney, which “still serves up its roller coasters the old-fashioned way—one rank for everyone, white collar next to blue…” Universal maintains that their V.I.P. offering was based on consumer feedback. And, from where they’re standing, the move is a win-win in that it allows them to rollout a new revenue stream at no cost. But, I wonder as awareness of this offering grows, if they won’t end up alienating their larger customer base. And, I fervently hope Disney continues to be “fearful of puncturing its utopian image” and avoids following suit. The Disney brand is a far different beast than the Universal Studios brand. I’m not even sure I could articulate a firm Universal Studios brand attribute (more geared toward older kids than Disney?). And, I’m not sure how you could look the Walt Disney-holding-Mikey Mouse’s-hand statue in the eye if you rolled out this package there.
We spend a lot of time counseling clients to take a position. The purpose of this critical marketing activity is to help them figure out what they are/want to be. It’s imperative to know what you are, but it’s just as important to then know what you are not. Your position is like your conscience, your guide; your own Jiminy Cricket. Once you’ve established your position and taken it out into the world, every single action must be run through the filter of that position to get the thumbs up or thumbs down. If it gets the thumbs down you either have to scrap the action or revise the position. Those are your only two choices.