Lessons Learned: The 3 Silliest Assignments I Ever Had

My friends tell me I am one of the funniest people they know.  I can find humor in the most awful or embarrassing circumstances and make people laugh.  Those of you who know me may think this is contrary to my way of thinking, which I would call “the worst case scenario.”  Still, many of my jobs have brought laughter to my family when I tell them what I am working on.  My husband wrote me a case study that I keep in front of me on my desk at all times.  It is called THE BEE MUSEUM, and it is an assignment for a nonprofit client that wants to test the market and financial feasibility for, you guessed it, a BEE MUSEUM.  This nonprofit is in a tiny market, but they project a million visitors per year, each spending a $20 per capita.  This is how many of my jobs go, in a nutshell.

We are hired principally to test new ideas, things that have never been done before.  So there have been some wild-ass ideas in my practice.  But as a very wise man once told me, “you never tell a client what they can’t do; you tell them what they can do.”  So for these very silly assignments, we develop projections based on realistic programs.  They may not be what the client wants (most of the time) and they may generate significantly less attendance and revenue, but they reflect the realities of the market.  So here they are, in no particular order, the three silliest projects I have ever worked on and the lessons learned.

Lesson Number 1:  Test before you build and then trust the results!

Native American casinos often wish to develop a cultural component along with the casino amenities.  Many of these start out as museums detailing the story of the tribe.  In one such instance, we were hired when the huge museum next to the casino was already under construction.  It had occurred to them that it might be good to get a realistic viewpoint on their attendance potential.  Of course, they were projecting one million visitors, who would come on the same trip as the gambling excursion.  This was in a day-market locale.  After studying the market, we told them, no the most you could get is 350,000 annual visitors and this would be from the 50-mile market, not from the casino visitors.  They are there to be BAD and they do not want to be educated or uplifted on the same trip they are losing (or winning, but not as often) their rent money.  Low and behold, they stabilized at about 350,000 before they had budget cuts and attendance lagged.  They were never pleased with us, even though we were correct.

Lesson Number 2:  Arrogance will get you nowhere in the retail and attraction businesses.  Remember the local culture and keep your culture out of it!

A very well-known entertainment company was planning a foreign theme park in a country where wine is consumed with lunch and dinner.  This is not alcoholic behavior; this is the culture and custom of the country.  Focus groups confirmed that it was the custom of potential visitors to have wine with meals.  What did this company do?  They prohibited alcohol from the park because it was against THEIR CULTURE.  Can you see where this is going?  Shouldn’t they have known better?  Wasn’t this obvious without expensive focus groups?  Needless to say, after a few years of low attendance and flagging EBDITA, they reversed their ridiculous stance and allowed alcohol in the park. 

Lesson Number 3:  Get inside your potential customer’s head, and don’t stop at a few interviews.  You could lose hundreds of millions.

This is another strange story about the failure of a whole division of Bullocks, when there was a Bullocks.  These stores are all Macy’s now.  But at this time, Bullocks wanted to expand to Northern California.  In order to do that, they had to open multiple locations, indicating a huge investment at the time.  Federated had the best research department in the business.  So we did all the area research, some consumer research, and several stores called “Bullocks Northern California” opened in the San Francisco Bay Area.  And they all FAILED!  How could this happen?  Are any of you aware of the jaw-tightening dislike that Northern Californians have for Southern Californians?  Well, I knew because I went to Berkeley and heard it every day I was there, being from Beverly Hills, which was a particularly huge transgression.  Anyway, no god-fearing Northern Californian would be caught dead in a Southern Californian retailer, EVEN THOUGH THE MERCHANDISE WAS THE SAME AS MACY’S, the closest competitor at the time. 

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One response to “Lessons Learned: The 3 Silliest Assignments I Ever Had

  1. Absolutely true, Jill. Not enough clients think (realistically) before they leap, or even understand the scope of what they are envisioning. I once worked for a large consumer photography company that wanted to develop a branded entertainment retail experience. They wanted a 10K sq. ft. store that would gross $1000 / SF — WOW!. They had no idea that it was an audacious goal. That’s a lot of $20 per caps for a brand experience store (unless your Apple)! You just never know until you break it down, research it and do the analytical build-up.

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