Remember the scene in the movie Poltergeist when the worried parents came home to find their young daughter staring at a TV screen of static? The spooky little girl turned around and announced to her terrified folks, “They’re here.”
I felt that way when I saw the recent marketing efforts for the areas in the Northeast hammered by Superstorm Sandy. Seems like they hired the same incompetent marketers that worked in the Gulf Coast after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Back then, a prolonged recession, increased competition, reduced consumer confidence, and many other reasons had already softened most of the Gulf Coast destinations’ business. But after the BP disaster they felt that by just announcing, “We don’t have greasy beaches yet,” consumers would arrive in droves. But since when was telling people the reasons why they shouldn’t not come considered good marketing?
“Eat here, our restaurant isn’t dirty.”
“Drive our car, it’s not unsafe.”
“Wear our jeans, they don’t make you look fat.”
Thanks to Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, even most politicians have learned that defending a negative doesn’t work:
“I am not a crook.”
“I did not have sex with that woman.”
Oh yeah? How’d that line work out for you?
Saying, “We weren’t flooded” or that “Our citizens depend on casino jobs” is more of the same — telling people why they shouldn’t not come. Instead, thoughtful messaging for the near future is critical, particularly in markets that were hurting before anyone ever heard of Superstorm Sandy.
As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said during a November 2008 Wall Street Journal Forum, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Resort areas in the stricken region should seize the opportunity to highlight their strongest selling points and not just make their areas look dry because negative perceptions have already been developed even if there wasn’t much flood damage. And with all eyes on the area, now is the perfect time to show those eyes what they’re missing. At least the positive parts.
The consequences of this tragedy, imagined to be the costliest U.S. natural disaster to date, will go on for years. But world events have already pushed the situation off the front pages.
Do you think the issue won’t go away quickly? When was the last time you were glued to your TV to find out about conditions in Haiti, the consequences of the last election or even health care reform? We Americans have a notoriously short attention span and when the media moves on, so do we.
Of course you know that just because the situation doesn’t make front-page headlines anymore doesn’t mean that everything is better. Post-earthquake Haiti is still the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and suffers from every possible ill of poverty, non-existent infrastructure, and aggressively corrupt leadership; it’s just that we’re not so actively involved anymore. Out of sight, out of mind is not just a glib saying; it’s an accurate description of our national attention deficit syndrome.
So maybe the cameras moving on to the next subject will be a good thing for coastal New Jersey’s tourism. After all, if pictures of flooded homes aren’t on our TV screens 24/7, visitors might forget about the storm and rebook their vacations. On the other hand, what happens if devastated neighborhoods are the last things consumers see before the cameras leave and there are no inviting images to change that perception?
The solution is not to tell people the reasons why they shouldn’t not come but instead to build compelling stories that connect with consumers’ emotions and build desire. I’m still waiting to see those campaigns from the affected destinations. For their sake, let’s hope they’re coming soon.
In his best seller Blink, Malcolm Gladwell writes about the veracity of the decisions we make quickly, arguing that millions of years of evolution have given us the perceptive skills we need to make instant choices, often without all the facts. One of his examples is a story about a museum that spent an enormous amount of money on a well-tested and professionally authenticated ancient statue only to have an expert question the providence of the piece after one quick glance.
Being a designer, I found that discussion extremely interesting because I often wonder the same thing. Is surface design — and the decisions made because of it — a shallow criteria or is it a true harbinger of much deeper meaning?
Nature seems to side with the second argument. The black/red/yellow pattern of a coral snake, for example, broadcasts the viper’s poisonous abilities, hence the nursery rhyme, “red on yellow, kill a fellow, red on black, friend of Jack.” Thorns, fangs, and claws all look dangerous and remind us to stay away. And evolution has graced some less dangerous creatures, such as the small emperor moth, with features designed to make them look much more formidable than they actually are — in the moth’s case, spots across delicate wings that resemble the eyes of the fiercest owl.
Politics, too, thrives on decisions made based on surface image. The 1960 presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy is an oft-quoted example. While most analysts say that radio listeners thought Nixon won the debate, Kennedy was declared the winner based on TV viewers. JFK’s youthful, vigorous, and handsome visage trumped the old school Nixon who was described as tired, puffy, and unshaven.
Regardless of their political affiliation, every president since Ronald Reagan has been tall and good-looking, including the two candidates for the current presidential race. And almost a century ago, the man widely declared to be one of the worst presidents in history, Warren Harding, was said to have won the race because he “looked presidential.”
Packaging has always been one of the key assets of marketing too, and up until recently the belief was that 80% of the purchase decision was made in-store when the consumer actually saw the product. Today, when more and more purchase decisions are made online, sites that are visually oriented and aesthetically pleasing outscore and outsell sites that are not.
Computerization has also made surface appeal more important. Because of modern design and manufacturing techniques, virtually all products function they way they should. Remember the days when TVs used to break? Picture tubes would blow, the gears inside dials (remember dials?) would strip, remote controls would fail. Today, thanks to computer design and digital signals, TVs work like they’re supposed to and consumers don’t feel the need to replace them very often. In order to stimulate sales, manufacturers had to create new features – flat screens and 3D TV – just to get their customers back into the stores.
Cars from Korea’s Kia used to be considered cheap and tinny transportation. But just as with televisions, computer-aided design and manufacturing changed the abilities and durability of the cars, bringing them into line with other, much more expensive automobiles. Kia telegraphed these changes with cutting-edge design and today their beautiful Sonata, Optima, and Rio are rocketing up the sales charts.
But the question remains. Are visuals reliable indicators of quality or just shallow eyewash? Would Ron Paul be a more successful candidate if he looked more like Mitt Romney instead of a ventriloquist’s dummy? Would Romney and Barack Obama have been as successful as they’ve been without their movie star looks? Would Apple have become the most valuable technology company on the planet without its steadfast commitment to design?
Miami, Milan, and Madrid have all built their businesses based on aesthetics. Audi, Kia, and Infiniti, too. So have Apple, Bose, and Bang & Olufsen. But does that mean their product offerings are better than the rest?
That’s a question deserving of a formidable debate. What I do know is that besides being an enjoyable end in and of itself, good design is a valuable business asset. Companies that invest in aesthetics and produce products and services that look and function better than the rest see the difference on their balance sheets. And consumers, often harried and time-starved, make purchase choices based on the snap decisions that have been honed by millions of years of evolutionary development.