I got a call from a jet-lagged friend who had been having trouble sleeping. He found himself channel surfing on late night TV and was shocked enough by the nature and character of infomercials enough to comment: “If this is where most Americans are getting their values, I’m ready to move to another country.” It’s just plain embarrassing. Given so much of what we are exposed to today, any rational person has to be cynical about “marketing”. Spam, unsolicited phone calls, and specious promotional offers seem inescapable. The U.S. housing industry, for example, is tanking because of the marketing of tricked-up loans to unwary homeowners, among other failures. But moving to another country is an unlikely solution for most of us, and the fact is that late night TV is pretty scary everywhere.
Most of us are involved in some aspect of commerce, selling our products, our time, or our talents. What we choose to sell, and how we sell it, is as good a window to our values as any activity we perform. I have been working on a new design and retail venture myself, thinking about how to do this intelligently (*see Now Hiring below), and paying attention to marketing more than usual. It’s not all schlock of course. There are numerous examples of excellence from huge companies like Apple to tiny independent retailers. Many humble corner delis and places like DWR do a fine job.
In the last decade we’ve seen the development of some of the most clever and efficient forms of marketing in history. EBay and online searching allows us to acquire almost anything without hype: a song, a hotel room anywhere in the world, a pizza, a date, or a sofa. We have also seen the resurgence of simple and low tech forms of marketing, especially apparent in the way a whole range of food products are offered to consumers. In San Francisco we have examples like Blu Bottle, a scruffy, unpretentious coffee “garage” in a congested traffic area in Hayes Valley. Bikers line up with lawyers in an alley for high-octane, freshly ground espresso drinks that need no catchy names to sell themselves. Portable hot dogs stands like Let’s Be Frank are now selling sustainably raised grass fed beef. Farmers markets have become mainstream in the Bay area and across the US. Humble taco stands like La Super Rica on a secondary street in Santa Barbara get written up in the New York Times. Clearly, if given the chance, many of us will sell products of genuine value in basic, straightforward ways.
Recently I have seen numerous diverse and unorthodox forms of selling: wine from gas pumps in Palermo and from slick dispensers in California, freshly made potato chips in street carts in Oaxaca, Mexico, fresh, unpasteurized milk from a farmer with a milk machine in Turin, watermelons from wheelbarrows in Nevada, dolls on a sidewalk chair in Havana, jeans offered from subway floors in Milan, gourmet cheeses available from a “roach coach” in the Italian countryside, and oranges from bags at an intersection in my Northern California neighborhood. There are ways to sell things of value without resorting to the embarrassing tactics that so often characterize our marketplace. Lots of ways.
*As mentioned above, I’ve been developing a new retail idea. I have posted a couple jobs on my homepage, and I’m using my newsletter to get the word out. We won’t be selling unpasteurized milk, but we will be offering a fresh perspective on marketing hopefully. I’d appreciate it if you would forward this to anyone who might be interested.