Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

I Want It! I Need It!

I will never forget the time my wife came to me, in all seriousness, and proclaimed, “We’re not buying any more CDs.”

“Huh?” I replied.

“You have enough. We’re not buying anymore.”

Isn’t it amazing how “we” and “you” were used interchangeably there? Never mind the fact that this was long before iTunes and downloading of any kind (legal or otherwise). Nope, an executive decision had been made, and I was the executee.

Of course, I broke the law (hers, not the RIAA’s). I bought more CDs. And although I now buy my music through iTunes, I have not quit amassing an enormous music collection. All the good songs have not yet been written, and it is my job (OK, desire) to enjoy the good ones that come along in the mean time.

Wants vs. NeedsWhether I need new music is quite another thing. I will not deny, though, that I want it. Once I get an ear worm, the only way to satisfy that critter is to buy more music.

Such is life, a never-ending battle of the ear worm and the pocketbook, the devil on one side and an angel on the other. Sales receipts litter the battlefield of Needs and Wants.

The job of the marketer is to help us discover our needs, not create them. And then they have been tasked (oh, doesn’t this just sound so noble?) with helping us translate those newfound needs into wants, activated by desire to fix some consumer problem that has popped onto the radar screen.

Oh yeah…and if they cannot help us discover those latent needs, then they’ll cut to the chase and try to build desire anyway.

From a marketer’s perspective, we are the neediest people to ever roam the planet. And our needs are often based on such high levels of economic activity that our ancestors could never have seen this coming. Who among us would have thought, back in 1997 when WTOnline first went, well, online, that we profs would need desktop and laptop computers, smart phones, and all the cool artifacts of a mobile office?

Excuse me while I wipe the bagel crumbs from my keyboard. Panera is crowded this morning, and I had to hustle just to get a small table.

Abraham Maslow would roll over in his pyramid-shaped grave were he to see how we have leaped beyond his first two levels of needs, and trained our sites on the remaining three. He might argue that our use of products to somehow try to satisfy the highly abstract notions of esteem, interpersonal, and self -attainment needs is superfluous at best, and downright scandalous at worst.

Sure, there are some things that we all need by virtue of living or by decree (car insurance comes to mind). But we live charmed lives these days, and I doubt any of us are at risk of running around naked or hungry. No, we are clothed quite nicely, and dining at the table of economic surplus. The soundtrack of our lives is richly appointed with a full backing band.

And I just can’t get that tune out of my mind. My wife is back at her mother’s. You wouldn’t tell if I downloaded it, would you?

Dr “Bleed For It” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

What’s Your Story?

Everyone has a story these days. Maybe that helps explains why narrative nonfiction books (aka memoirs) are selling like hotcakes. We love joining the story of others, while at the same time creating our own.

I have heard it said that the products and brands a man or woman buys are all part of a personal narrative, with story arcs, plots, twists, turns, and unexpected endings. Which means that what we buy is determined in large part by agendas, motives, drives, and all sorts of intangibles that perhaps even we do not fully understand.

MirrorBut maybe the story we are trying to tell to others we are simultaneously trying to tell to ourselves. No longer enamored of what we see in the mirror, we try to write a compelling tale not so much for the public, but for an audience of one: Ourself.

So let us think about the products and brands we buy. I won’t even approach the subject of whether the item was a need or a want. To borrow a page from the gaming playbook, beauty is in the eye of the Wii holder.

When I purchase a certain brand of trousers or shirts, am I trying to tell myself I am stylish? Oh-so-professional? Is my vehicle an extension of myself, or am I an extension of it? Does my choice of microbrew make me a connoisseur, or a common sewer anyway?

And is anybody else really even watching or listening when I spin this tale for myself?

Probably not.

Even a dog brand can suddenly do a 180 and become hip and cool in spite of the fact that yesterday it lay dying on the beach. Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) comes to mind, a historic but long-faded relic of the post-Prohibition era that was rescued by counter-culture youth a few years ago because it was not marketed. And in the process, it became an overnight success. Again. Seventy years later.

So I have to wonder what this says about us all. Are we just a bunch of insecure babes in the woods trying to convince ourselves that we’ve got it all together? I think this may be truth.

And it may go a long way toward explaining our obsession with MySpace, Facebook, blogging, and even Twitter. It’s not the world we’re trying to impress, it’s US.

So does this mean we all face a term in the loony bin for talking to ourselves?

Dr “Just Don’t Answer Your Own Questions” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008


I must be getting old. The harvest has begun, and it seems like only a few years have passed since I was busy sowing seeds.

I remember when I was young. My brother and I would always harangue our parents until they tuned in WLS on the car radio. WLS was then Chicago’s premier Top 40 radio station, and their music offended our parents to no end. “Can you turn it up a bit?” we nagged.

During last week’s road trip, the seeds bore fruit as our daughters implored us to play Jordyn Sparks over and over again. I heard Tattoo more times than I care to remember. Here’s a little tip, Jordyn: Use a real drummer next time, not some lame drum machine. Back in my day, artists used humans, not machines.

“Dad, can you turn it up a bit?”

I now know what my parents went through. They deserve a medal, for they weathered a continuous insult to their musical sensibilities. It’s not that I dislike modern music, for I actually prefer more 21C material than the tunes with which I grew up. There’s just something about Jordyn Sparks that rubs me raw, and makes me want to drive faster just to get the trip over with.

TattooToday we see yet another form of this taking place, that being the prevalence of tattoos and body piercing. Not that these are anything new, mind you. It’s just that it seems like I am quickly headed into minority status with my ink-free body. If the folks I saw last week baring it all (well, mostly) at Schlitterbahn are any indication, I should have invested in the tattoo industry.

And I don’t mean just subtle little tattoos on the upper arm, or even the ankle wraps or the so-called “tramp stamp” in the small of the back. No, I’m talking about massive pieces of artwork that beg people to turn and gawk. Like I did.

Which is probably the intented reaction anyway.

I have read numerous times that today’s youthful obsession with getting inked is really a form of rebellion. And that’s OK, because previous generations were no different. I just wonder, though, if harvest time will come back to haunt them.

You see, corporations are still a tad stodgy. And even though a person’s artistic masterpiece may be concealed across their shoulders or chest, anything that is visible is simply verboten.

I do not have a problem with tasteful tattoos. but you might be surprised to hear how others react. Not too long ago we had some new pics taken of students in the College of Business, photos that would be used in a variety of promotional ways. One shot showed some students. A young woman in this group had a visible ankle tattoo which showed through her stocking. Even though she was in business attire, the powers that be deemed this just a tad off-center.

So, Photoshop to the rescue.

I pride myself on being open to new ideas, new music (except Jordyn Sparks), and even the creativity of some tattoos. But I have to wonder if a lot of people have been busy planting for an unexpected harvest. That harvest could come about in the form of being shunned by employers, as well as later regret. And never mind the irony of individual expression trying to mask mainstream conformity.

No, I think I will invest in the tattoo-removal industry. I predict legions of people seeking a magic eraser. The thought of this is music to my ears, and it’s a tune I can easily listen to.

Can you turn it up a bit?

Dr “And It Has A Real Drummer” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Running With The Rhinos

Nature is a funny place. One often needs a sense of humor to parse through the many anomalies. Take the white rhinoceros, for instance. You don’t want to mess with one of these creatures, lest you be gored and stampeded. Running with the bulls in Pamplona seems kind of lame in comparison.

But riding on the back of the rhinocoeros one will likely find the tiny oxpecker, a bird that eats ticks and other ectoparasites also hitching a ride. The rhino benefits from the oxpecker, and the oxpecker gets a free ride and a meal. What a deal.

We have a name for this. It’s called symbiosis. And in a strange kind of way, the marketer/customer relationship is not much different.

BrandsYou see, we savor the brands that marketers create and sell. And marketers savor our money. The brands we buy become reflections of who we are, our incomes, our good tastes, our lifestyle. We have hopped on the rhino, hoping he takes us on a mind-blowing symbiotic ego trip.

New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker, author of Buying In and host of, has also noticed this symbiotic relationship. Walker argues that, contrary to what the media say about consumers being in control and totally immune to marketing, quite the opposite is occurring. Marketers rely ever more on stealth tactics to lure us into their web, while at the same time we have become brand slaves (some might even say whores) as we seek to build our own brand by consuming certain brands and even helping create those brands at the same time.

“Excuse me, is this rhino taken?”

Had Churchill lived to see this play out, he would quickly see it for what it is: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Except that marketers aren’t quite as nefarious as the Soviets.

Consumers, in their quest to individualize themselves through brand consumption and expression, paradoxically become a pack animal. Maybe not the mainstream pack they loathe and seek to dissociate from, but part of those in the breakaway group.

The result of this never-ending spiral is more and more new products, more and more brands, and an insatiable appetite to consume.

So right now I am riding the Apple rhino. I drank the Kool-Aid (but should have bought stock instead). The computers. The iPods. The phone. The sticker on my car says it all, and with nary a word. Can the tattoo be far off?

Walker has astutely noted that what we buy really is a statement about who we are. Perhaps we are all followers to some extent (you’re either in the lead group, the middle, or the laggards who never quite get it), but at the same time we love to build up our own brand, a form of social cap[ital we think has value far greater than any paper currency.

And we also love to gloat over being in-the-know long before the huddled masses. See if you can guess which of the following are true about me:

  1. I was a vegetarian long before they figured out how to make better-tasting veggie burgers.
  2. I was a bike commuter back when gas was only a $1 a gallon.
  3. I have always thought that Twitter was the coolest thing to ever happen.
  4. I discovered that Fredericksburg TX is a great place to bike, moved my Spring Break camp there in 1994, and now the city is filled with cyclists.
  5. I have been sending text messages for several years, and have never scoffed at it as a viable means of communication.

If you guessed that (a), (b), and (d) are true, then you really know me. So maybe that rhino I am riding is actually a rather complex beast, the embodiment of several brands and activities and lifestyle elements that make me Me. That’s right. With a capital M.

And by extension, your brands and activities and lifestyle elements make you You. But let’s all be careful to not fall off our rhinos. This ego trip doesn’t have a road assistance program.

Dr “Enjoying The Ride” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Whirled Market

Back in the late-70s, I witnessed firsthand the biases people can hold against products from certain countries. I had just bought my first car, a ’79 Toyota Corolla. I was going to Anderson University in Indiana. Anderson was a General Motors town, with two large plants employing thousands of blue-collar workers.

At the time, unemployment was running over 20% in this town, inflation was rampant, and people were scared. So, quite naturally, they took things out on the nearest threat, which at that time was Japanese cars.

Fortunately, my car was never bashed by a disgruntled auto worker, but I didn’t sleep well my last two years there. Especially my senior year when my apartment was right around the corner from the union hall.

importsCountry-of-origin effects are nothing new. People have always been afraid of goods brought in from other countries, because they fear for their very job. Tensions really mount when the imported good enjoys significant price, quality, and/or performance advantages. And at the time, Japanese cars were all the rage because they were cheap, ran forever, and got great gas mileage.

Today we have come to accept Japanese cars as a way of life. Numerous manufacturing facilities have been built stateside by Japanese automakers, mostly in response to the so-called “voluntary” quotas imposed on them in the 1980s. They skirted the quotas by building factories here, and hiring non-union workers. Today the Japanese hold about 35% market share of US vehicle sales, and Toyota is the number one automaker in the world.

The focal point today is just a little farther west. Or is that east? It makes no difference, because the nation is spelled the same regardless how you get there: China.

In the last year China has taken a lot of heat because of lead paint, lax pharmaceutical standards, and tainted dog food. But we continue to import goods from there by the boat load. The only things that could ever put a halt to this would be continued erosion of the dollar or increasingly expensive petroleum. But until then, “Made In China” will continue to be three of the most common words we see.

It’s funny, though, how venue can affect our perception of imports. Critics of Wal-Mart say that the venerable retail giant is the biggest contributor to American job losses. Some shoppers look down with scorn at all the cheap imported goods. But right around the corner at stores like World Market, being an import is actually a good thing. Just try to find American-made goods there (other than their beer and wine selection). No, nearly everything is imported, a veritable global bazaar of non-perishables. Marco Polo could have saved himself a lot of bother had this store been in his neighborhood.

So how is it that country-of-origin is a big deal at one store, but a sought-after quality at another? Good question. If you find the answer, let me know, because this is one of the great inconsistencies in American retailing.

My cycling buddy recently commented while out on a long ride that, if he changed his drivetrain over to SRAM products, his bike would be completely made in the USA. The titanium frame. The lightweight racing wheels and spokes. The carbon fork. Even the tires. OK, the innertubes probably came from Taiwan or China, but you can’t see them.

But unless you are on a mission, it is exceedingly difficult to buy an American-made bike. Most lower-end models are made exclusively in Japan, and probably contain some Japanese components. Most quality bikes may have a US-made frame, but will contain parts from Japan, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and France. It may or may not be assembled here.

That’s quite a global product for such a simple concept.

My point (and I do have one) is that our biases against countries stem mostly from our fears of the unknown. We have come to know and embrace products from Europe and Japan, but we still just don’t know much about the Chinese yet. Bad PR doesn’t help matters. But the truth is that the Chinese are very close to exporting cars to the US, and they already make a wide variety of things most people would never consider: musical instruments, most laptops in the $600-700 range, refrigerators, TVs, microwaves, and more. China has become the industrial sector for the world.

As for my college town, those two GM plants closed down little by little in the last 25 years, and have now been demolished. Those jobs are gone forever, and the population has shrunk by 25%. Ironically, one of the state’s biggest Toyota dealers is right there in Anderson, testimony that attitudes can and do change.

But I tell you what. I would be deathly afraid to drive a Chinese-made car through Detroit anytime soon. That would be like asking for whuppin.

Dr “Free To Choose…But Choose Carefully” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

In The Clouds

I know it is never fun when someone like a parent or professor gets to tell you, “I told you so.” But I did tell my students. And for the most part, they thought I was nuts.

Every once in a while, though, we are right.

To wit: Since last fall I have been singing the praises of data clouds, which are basically 24/7 accessible secure servers in which anyone can store important documents. These range from your tax returns to collaborative documents like research papers with peers. Many of my students scoffed at the idea of cloud computing, especially in this era of identity theft.

Yet most of my students still practiced it by using Google Docs or a similar wiki-type site for writing their papers and exam replies.

CloudSo I ciouldn’t help but smile last night while scanning my email. Among the usual spam was an announcement from Wells Fargo stating that there rumored vSafe, a virtual safe deposit box for your documents. Depending on the size of your “box,” monthly fees will range from $5-15.

Critics can still scoff that nothing is ever really secure. But then I hope they never use a credit card at a restaurant or give their Visa number to a stranger over the phone.

While Wells Fargo is in the banking business, and not known for computing services, the vSafe actually makes a lot of sense. After all, banks sell security, and safe deposit boxes are one of their security offerings. What difference does it make if the safe deposit box is online?

Cloud computing is changing the way we live as well as choose our banks. I suspect the monthly fees will drop once competing banks join the market with similar services. And with other non-bank providers like Carbonite, the competition will no doubt become intense.

Kudos to WF for seizing the moment to extend their banking domain into document security. It’s not just about keeping someone from stealing your docs, but also preserving them in the event of fire (which, after all, is an important reason why we have safe deposit boxes). This is no pie-in-the-sky idea.

Dr “Mostly Cloudy” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Baby Baby

What a difference a year can make. The high cost of gas (relatively speaking, of course) has become a near-constant theme in my blogs this summer. It has affected everyone, rich and poor. And now I am changing my prognostications about how the Baby Boomers will live out their golden years.

After all, if your RV only gets 8mpg, Social Security might not even be enough to cover the gas.

BoomersAs we all know, the Boomers have been the most adored cohort ever to populate the US, and if Gen X and Gen Y are any indication, probably the most despised as well.

So how will $4 gas (or more) affect our soon-to-be-retirees? In a huge way. I once thought my gang would drive around the US in 40-foot buses, piloted by folks doing well to see the dashed white lines on the road. Scary thought, eh?

But I am now revising my guesses. I think we have truly found the break point with gas, the price at which people blanch and begin to cut back. And if your generation is one that has been spending itself to death the last few decades, it’s not going to be easy settling into a more mundane existence.

That’s not to say the Boomers are all going to gather at the dumpster for a freegan convention. It just means they will have to tweak some things. Maybe a lot of things.

I see Boomers hanging on to their houses, the ones they spent the last 30 years paying off, rather than pulling up stakes and heading south. And I see a lot fewer of them hanging out at the RV dealership.

Boomers will probably never retire, either. Many will be forced into a “second career” of part-time jobs to help make ends meet, or, if they are lucky, will work until their company finally kicks them out. I have already revised my retirement plan upward from 60 to 67…and maybe later. The market would have to perform some incredible heroics in the coming 11 years for me to check out early.

The Boomers, though, will never give up their quest for the fountain of youth. If an all-purpose Viagra comes along, we will be popping those things out of Pez dispensers. Bald? ED? High cholesterol? Tired? Take this Milk Dud-size pill and cure it all.

If Boomers do move, I see them wanting to be in tightly clustered communities in which they can walk or take their golf cart to the store, bank, and barber. Anything to reduce dependence on oil will be seen as a plus. Population densities will increase, but that’s the price we will pay for saving gas money.

Boomers will continue to want a blend of the tangible and the digital. While we embrace the technology that brought us iTunes and iPods, we still want to hold the CD. While we all use debit cards, occasionally we want to count the cash.

More importantly, I see Boomers having to learn a lesson their parents learned about 80 years ago. Maybe it is poetic justice for my generation to have to dine from the pot of frugality, but unless we return to the days of cheap oil, the ramifications of new market realities are going to make our golden years anything but gold.

And maybe it is just too bad we didn’t learn this lesson a little earlier. It’s hard making adjustments at the end when you’ve had it so good all along.

Dr “Deferred Gratification” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Phone Home

It is hard to break into a market that is already established, with people entrenched in their ways. The costs of brand- or format-switching can often be enormous, and serve the greater corporate purpose of keeping customers locked in.

Last year’s iPhone release is a good example. Unless you were with AT&T or willing to break ties with your carrier (at great cost), you could only stand back and marvel at the cool phone. It took three months to sell the first million units (not bad), but I can only imagine how many would have sold. And that is in spite of the tight grip Blackberry has on the corporate smart phone market, the result of their being in place for years before Apple came along.

AndroidToday the world is anxiously awaiting the arrival of Google’s phone, a vaporware product that has been floating in rumorland for several years. And coming in a few months to a store near you.

The only thing is, it is not a Google phone. It is a Google operating system (Android) that will be available on a multitude of new phones.

You see, Google has never been in the hardware business. It is all about software and internet applications. And selling lots of ads. To these ends, the Android is poised to do well.

If people buy the phones, that is.

Google has been quietly canvassing the world for user-generated applications for the operating system (see the Wired July 2008 feature). Since Android is open-source, anyone can join the fray. And give Google heaps of credit for recognizing that the battle for the internet is no longer going to take place on your desktop computer. No, it is being waged on your phone. Mobile in, computers out.

The only problem is this: I don’t need another new phone. Once again, I am committed (having spent a wad for my stylish yet highly functional iPhone). Unless I lose it, break it, or go crazy with the Visa, I’m not buying.

I am not opposed to product improvements, for they raise the standard for all of us. And I am certainly not opposed to learning some new tricks I can do on my phone. But switching this late in the game is a lot different than just swapping Kellogg’s for General Mills.

I think I hear the phone ringing. I bet it’s my conscience (aka Mrs. Gerlich) calling to remind me of my promise that the iPhone would be my last phone. Ever.

Send a postcard when you get there, gang. I’ll be interested to hear all about it.

Dr “Day Late and $500 Short” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Big and Rich

One of the most rewarding things to happen to a prof is when they witness their students getting it. Really getting it. And even though I faked right and ran left, the defense still followed me. I love it.

So it has been with great delight that I find my students seeing an apparent contradiction in my blogging: here I am, a career Marketing prof, telling people to (gasp) not spend all of their money, to buy used, and to save their hard-earned dough. Isn’t that like the devil telling you to come to Jesus?

Well, maybe. But let me explain.

Ron SiderNow let me make this clear first. I do not have all the answers, but I do know most of the questions. As my students know all too well from my exams, I can throw a lot of them. But there is some rhyming to my reasoning.

Many years ago I read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. No, this is not a religious sales pitch happening before your very eyes. This is just a changed man talking, one who in his younger days could not see beyond all the big dollar signs looming in the sales of Tomorrowland.

Not just another “you should feel guilty for all of this” diatribe, Sider showed me that with great freedom comes great responsibility. And within the context of two belief systems (capitalism and Christianity), the responsibilities are double. This is not to say that other religions cannot have similar value systems. I just learned that there is much more to Marketing than flag-waving on the way to the bank (and church).

No, I do not advocate socialism or any of those other isms that try to redistribute wealth through the strong arm of the government. Far from it. I firmly believe that the free market of ideas and commerce is the best way. But I also believe that just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean you should.

So here I stand at the crossroads of Unfettered Capitalism and Social Conscience. It is an intersection without a traffic signal or even a stop sign, and navigating through it can be tricky. But each of us must figure out how to get through it, knowing that if we go one way, traffic from the other may still collide with us.

As I have grown older (not old!), I have learned to respect my possessions, but not covet their replacements in a never-ending spiral of consumerism. I have learned I need not consume everything, and it is good to leave some for others (even expensive oil and its derivatives). And I have learned that it is good to give to those with less, and that I probably should be giving a lot more.

Feeling guilty about being so richly blessed? Nope. Just happy to no longer be in the rat race of materialism. The rats were winning.

Dr “Or Am I Just All Wet?” Gerlich

Posted by: nickgerlich | July 1, 2008

Too All Beef?

Marketers are like shadows. You cannot never shake them, and they are always half a step ahead or behind you, depending on where the sun is. Wherever you go, there they are. And if by chance you find yourself someplace with no marketers, they will quickly figure out how to get there.

Take the Pony Express for example. I am sure when those noble horsemen started toting important messages across the hinterlands, their mailbag was weighted down with nothing but legitimate mail. But it didn’t take marketers long to invent junk mail.

And now we have to sift through daily piles just to find the important stuff. Which is usually just a bill we pay online anyway. After all, who still writes letters?

Big MacSo I was not surprised in the least when I saw that McDonald’s is leveraging MySpace for its latest campaign. Now you can go straight to their BigMacChant to find out how you, too, could have a chance at writing their next commercial.

We have all become accustomed to ads on MySpace, as well as indie bands building their own little shrines for followers, but MySpace is now taking a turn. When the companies start taking over entire pages instead of just the banner ads, you know that the site has changed focus. It’s not just about social networking anymore. No, it’s about selling hamburgers.

Truth be known, I can’t blame McDonald’s. There are about 110 million MySpace users, which makes 220 million eyeballs. Advertisers drool at such prospects.

And it’s no different over at Second Life, where companies build entire “islands” and campuses reinforcing their message. It may be an imaginary place, but marketing by any other name still has thorns. Linden dollars, US dollars, Euros, it matters not. The marketers want us to look at them.

What next, Twitter?

Dr “No Escaping” Gerlich

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