If we reflect on the essence of quality, it can be stated with reasonable certainty that a product which is good enough does not require overt sales and marketing. The goal of any company, therefore, is to create self-evident desirability; this is the key to success. Overt marketing usually implies a greater deception. Overt salesmanship most certainly does.
In book 1 of Praeterita, the autobiography of John Ruskin, the author writes of his travels in Italy thus, when describing how, through a lack of understanding of the Italian language, he needs to get by on by observation rather than discourse:
” I don’t say our isolation was meritorious, or that people in general should know no language but their own. Yet the meek ignorance has these advantages. We did not travel for adventures, nor for company, but to see with our eyes and to measure with our hearts. If you have sympathy, the aspect of humanity is more true to the depths of it than its words; and even in my own land, the things in which I have been least deceived are those which I have learned as their spectator.”
Ruskin argues therefore that focused observation without decoration reveals a substantive truth. If one takes a study of people’s emotions and movements as more important than the dialogue between them, as renowned silent film commentator, Ithankyouarthur, would support, then we can see the logic of Ruskin’s position. Emotion is conveyed by more complex methods than by the base instrument of language.
If therefore we apply the study of observation to the presentation of a product’s attributes, we can begin to understand that the item which rewards regard is that which exudes capability beyond words. We may call this inherent truth.
We can observe inherent truth in a number of items today. Let us examine a random selection of three such items.
A Morgan car. This car is, technically, unmarketable in a highly competitive world, but it is what it is. Consumers judge it not for spurious claims, “clever” advertising and brand conceits. It is not a derivative design but one cultured by evolving graduation. It is a hand-made product of distinctive line and proportion, conjuring past times but supported by modern technology. It becomes desirable because, in being true to itself, it seeks not to deceive. Indeed, deception is unnecessary to it.
Halsbury’s Laws of England. A remarkable legal encyclopaedia which, though now also available digitally, is seen and recognised as the definitive statement of English law and is designed to assist all lawyers to answer any question which may, as a consequence of their business, be presented to them by a client. This legal work does not claim to be the authority on any topic – for which other works are available – but delivers fundamental reliability and clarity when a lawyer needs direction to respond promptly. It is, as a consequence, cited in courts up and down the land.
The Oxford English Dictionary. There are dictionaries and there is the OED. Defined as “the definitive record of the English language” it is the gatekeeper over accepted language and use and, as a consequence of its reputation, is seen as almost eponymous. The quality and academic rigour which lies behind the brand is a statement in itself of the reliability which the consumer can expect through delivery.
It is observed that none of these items feels it necessary to emit siren songs in the airwaves of our perception. Their chosen method of defining their reach lies in the statement of their substance. This, it is argued, is what lies behind the strongest products and services today and which we, as producers, need to emulate.
A dangerous and futile task in a world obsessed by immediacy and making a quick profit? No. It can be seen that if it is so that we as businesses need to persuade by dubious advocacy rather than demonstrate by evident truth then we can see that our businesses are ephemeral at best or in decline at worst. Inner truth, like perceived beauty, will always be in the eye of the beholder and we each and every one of us judges by what we see to be true rather than what others tell us is fact.
We must make of ourselves strong things if we are to last the course and project our values into the future. And be better men and women as a consequence.
Let’s look at Amazon – a classic case where choice creates a model but where choice, by nature of its subsequent overwhelming nature, serves to commoditise value. Once value is commoditised, it can therefore be argued, choice ceases to exist. In a grey cloud, despite environmental analysis and empirical proof that it exists, no-one can see the water. Yet Amazon, a big puff of knowledge in a cloud of unknowing, still asserts a credible position in the consumer’s mind: good products, low prices, fast delivery.
The Amazon phenomenon
Amazon is a noted success story in digital economics. It has created an interface where service and delivery, combined with apparent low price, have engendered considerable consumer attraction and made it loyal. Who today does not shop on Amazon? Publishers themselves have become so terrified of this phenomenon that many have abandoned all sense of brand ownership and have either: constructed their own e-commerce platforms to tie in with Amazon; have re-routed their web sales to Amazon; or they have put their head in the sands. You can lead a horse to water but if Amazon’s tastes better…
The Amazon method
A singular conceit of the Amazon story is that it gives customers what they want at a price apparently guaranteed to be lower than elsewhere. Amazon has come to resemble the evergreen ivy – symbiotically thriving off the marketing initiatives of others to provide sales to consumers. Publishers market their products, the customers buy elsewhere. On Amazon.
Some producers – and publishers in particular – have attempted to conclude that Amazon can be fought by offering a lower online price. This curiously blunt response is inefficient: if publishers lowered their prices, consumers would flock to them – right? Wrong. This is the power of brand. Amazon has fought for the space in the battle ground of perception and has won handsomely, it seems.
Amazon has now created a machine and a brand so powerful that perception lies in the mind of consumers far bolder than individual brands themselves. “Want a Penguin book? Buy it off Amazon.” How can publishers survive when they have, in terms of brand apparently, ceased to exist?
The Amazon pricing myth.
If we study Amazon carefully we can observe that, as sales of a given product increase, so algorithmically the price of that product goes down. The machine appears to be designed to respond to products which sell well – allowing Amazon to manipulate its generous publisher discounts and to deliver margin by volume transaction.
By contrast, products which do not sell well are priced with minimal discount: Amazon deems, logically, that low volume transaction requires higher margin. It can be observed therefore that lower prices are not a function of generosity but of trend. Volume has rarely proven to be a route to margin save when driven by sudden and consistent demand.
The Amazon problem for publishers
How can publishers survive in an environment when already in excess of 50% of the retail price of a book may have been surrendered to Amazon in terms of “trade discount”? How can they survive when a significant proportion of the remaining 50% is spent on marketing and promoting the book in the first instance? How can the already slender pocket price be managed so that publishers retain enough to stay in business and promote new books, e-books and other products?
What makes a book desirable is one of the great publishing conundrums. As Philip Kogan, chairman of business publisher Kogan Page, once wryly observed “if you can write me a book that will sell then I will publish it”. The onus is on publishing staff therefore to be commercial rather than functionary. Yet many fall into the latter category. Many publishers and their staff have ceased to propagate consistent imagination; complacency has overtaken desire; professional pride has taken second place to “a job in publishing”.
It can be observed that if publishers are no longer imaginative in output, and if Amazon as a tool offers little but a vast lake of literature ill-defined beyond digital categorisation, then consumers will become weary. Choice becomes a chore, not the outcome of selective enquiry. In this world, even the brightest pearls remain hidden in the encrusted oyster shell of publisher and retailer ennui.
How Amazon fights against itself and its suppliers do likewise
If we re-cap: Amazon owns a significant portion of the digital retail space. It owns a significant chunk of margin. It benefits from publisher marketing spend. Amazon’s function to a publisher is to clear stock in sufficient volume so as to render the initiative worthwhile. Yet in offering so much choice in one brand space, Amazon also serves to negate its own success by diverting attention from product assessment in favour of salient “best-sellers”.
The publisher too does not help itself. We have also observed that significant rafts of publisher output is uninspired as a consequence of a publisher’s commercial imperative, which is to say the production of enough books in a year to deliver an overall margin at the end of it. The demand for revenue leads inexorably to the disintegration of quality unless the creation of quality is placed at the centre of publishing operation.
It is also an inherent problem with publishers in that they are unable to define the value behind their books and load them into the shop window of Amazon in the hope of passing trade. Reading many descriptions of books on Amazon is akin to visiting an art exhibition in a village hall: mediocre quality aspiring to be seen as great. Marketers and copywriters are woefully ill-equipped to do the fundamental job needed in today’s online retail world: to describe the essence of a book in order to engender its successful purchase.
It can also be observed that any search of Amazon may well yield a raft of entries for the same product. The current edition. Old editions. Other retailers selling the same edition. Entries with the book jacket showing. Entries without an image. Out-of-print editions from second-hand stalls. At the same time, Amazon is prepared to help the publisher but only, it appears, if the publisher is prepared to pay – for example, to appear in a promotional email to Amazon customers. More pocket price given away in the hope of further sales. Through Amazon. At 50% discount or whatever.
Amazon today, therefore, is often now a tool offering a shop window for products which are not attractively wrapped and neither are they inherently visible. In Amazon’s shop window, Tiny Tim would never see the toys he wishes his parents could buy for him. There are too many books, too poorly described.
Amazon, ultimately, is not helping itself. And publishers are not helping themselves – or Amazon – either. Which probably accounts for the fact that, even for Amazon, its book retailing margins are barely more impressive than those of the publishers themselves.
A way forward?
In creating a tool designed fundamentally to service volume sales of attractive items, Amazon in many ways has created a platform where significant potential is lost. By the same token, Publishers still remain unable to define why any reader should choose its products over those of another publishing company. Price and value once again fall away on the altar of doing the easiest things as quickly as possible.
This article argues therefore that a better model for Amazon be created where retailer and producer combine to create a platform of informed choice. Amazon should insist on certain descriptive and marketing standards for what it sells and publishers ought to know what it is they are selling by being more understanding of the value inherent in their product range. Amazon should refuse multiple entries of the same title and should not permit product entries deficient of key elements such as book jacket design, contents listings and other judgement criteria. Publishers ought, too, to create books of real quality.
In such an environment, consumer choice and product visibility become easier, volume-based products will continue to sell well and lower-volume items will be more accessible to retail at acceptable margins. But such a development is unlikely in the short term. Amazon has no financial need to change and publishers in response will continue to tread water. The consequence of which is the continuation of the same problem which has dogged publishers and booksellers for years: the idle pursuit of an acceptable level of income irrespective of the value surrendered through laziness and intellectual incapability.
In the meantime, the consumer remains confused, unable to make informed choices and the publishing and retail industry – Amazon included – will continue significantly to perform below their real potential.
Today, marketing has reached such levels of sophistication that it has the potential, by its obsession with technique, to negate the very intent of its ambition – the apparent persuasion of the many into the belief that they are the few. It is argued here that brands which try to engender a personality beyond the experience of their tangibility are the authors of their own disaster. Indeed, the commoditisation by behavioural categorisation will be the death of sophistication and of human ambition.
Let us reflect for a moment on the words of the former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, whose funeral is today. She argued: “To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something which no one believes and to which no one objects“. She was discussing political consensus; here it is suggested that a consensus of message by computerised demographic satisfaction leads to the same end. A failure of credibility.
From cars to shopping, companies today have – like politics – developed a fear of their own shadows as they consensus seek. Generic designs, inoffensive logos, perfect function and form have risen as protective shields for brands worldwide. The avoidance of failure and the nuanced presentation of PR and crisis communication have become the order of the day. imperfection, it seems, is unacceptable to large corporations. But lest we forget, Tess of the d’Urbervilles was made exquisite in her face by that very slight imperfection which rendered knees to melt in Dorset fields a century or more ago.
In trying to appeal to the many, today’s brands lose their appeal to the few who, in their orignal interest, created the very origins of the brand itself. Brands lose, in the search for volume, a unique identity which created them. If we compare a Jaguar E-Type to a modern Jaguar, we can observe how one man’s vision for flair (Sir William Lyons) and patriotism has now become a bland demographically-designed product for global reach. In the E-Type, the “ugly curve” of British design which rendered it in all contrariness exquisitely beautiful, has now been abandoned to vulgar blandness of the “global car” in the F-Type. Yes, the F-Type is technically much better but how is it different to an Aston Martin or even a Japanese sports car?
We can see that a company has lost its vision when, in the nomenclature of its product range, it seeks to imbue the future with the laurel wreaths of the past. By the same token, companies which try to disguise what they are behind the cleverness of irrelevant message – or which try to assert something which cannot be proven – are also doomed to fail. We recall well the idea that Rover cars were to be the “British BMW”. This indeed, it is argued, is a fundamental reason why politics itself is so discredited – the people demand substance and vision but the politicians dole out disguise. As do marketers. Supermarkets too are no different. We only need to enter a Tesco store to be confronted by the odious classification of day-to-day living into lifestyle choices disguised or enhanced often, it seems, by a neologistic creativity of profound cultural depravity. Can we really claim to live in a world – can we enjoy such a world – where “snacking” is apparently a quotidian pursuit of us all? Do we really believe the horrific monstrosity of Tesco’s claim: “helping you spend less every day“? Not forgetting of course the vile deception of “every little helps” which, when matched to the unfathomable pricing differences of similar products on the same shelf, leaves only anger in the belly of those who dare to consider it?
Today, the discerning customer shuns the average. It is said, for example, that some people only shop in Waitrose because they cannot bear to be among the demographic attracted by Tesco. Of course, many of these leading companies are impressively successful but the cracks are appearing in brands built by conceit. Today, for example, it is revealed that Tesco’s attempt to commoditise the USA with its cheesily (and perhaps patronisingly) branded “Fresh and Easy” has ended in failure and the company has reported a sharp fall in sales. Rover closed long ago.
And then of course comes the tyranny of the desperation brands: payday loans and gambling websites. The depiction of these businesses as some how as acceptable as walking the dog or going to church is one of the most heinous marketing crimes of the modern age. In making something with great potential dangers (particularly to the vulnerable) as appearing inherently safe, marketers have sold their souls to the devil.
It is of course legitimate to argue that businesses must shape themselves to their target market and, in so doing, to exploit that market to their own – and their investors’ – satisfaction. We cannot, in the pursuit of honesty, debate the need for commercial valediction. But we can argue for a statement of delivery beyond that of demographic categorisation.
In seeking to classify purchasers as target markets, companies shape consumers as pawns without thought or direction – modelling them through loyalty schemes to behave in a certain fashion. From modern housing estates to motorway service stations, the satisfaction of a general demand over an aesthetic imperative will only ever create a weakness in ambition and an uncertainty in what is truly possible.
Companies, individuals and marketers owe it to their customers to highlight a vision for the future and not merely deliver the satisfaction of a perceived demographic imperative. It is argued indeed that in creating target audiences, companies deprive us all of a future. Conversely, by responding to market demand, they are more likely to shine a torch into what is otherwise a dark cave of human ennui.
So to engage the minds of consumers, companies need to have a vision with which people can identify without being patronised. Desire is created by a demonstrable passion shining golden aloft and not by the clothing of the bland in a carapace of nylon. Demand is driven by shared dreams and not by the satisfaction of the day-to-day. If we as marketers surrender human interaction, cultural aesthetic and the art of the possible – and sacrifice these values on the altar of transaction – then all we shall ever have is diminishing congregation in the church of commerce.
So it is that we recall these words: to thine own self be true. But if in thyself thou art but paste, then a diamond thou shalt never be. Humanity shines through in the best of us – and we distort the pleasure of our intercourse and ambition at our peril.
For the consumer, truth is made demonstrable following the personal satisfaction by categoric examination of recognisable component elements. Fail to substantiate a claim and credibility collapses. This is why integrated marketing communications are critical to commercial success. Yet many brands are let down by poor quality communication. Integration falls at the wayside of output necessity.
In Great Britain, and in other English-speaking countries, we are blessed with a language of fundamental power, flexibility and performance. Eloquence combined with subtlety can be used to extol the virtue of anything from a humble clout nail to a complex aero engine.
Yet many companies have little understanding of message or its fundamental significance in a world where perception is all. Many marketing teams today do not work with the power of the language. There has been a decline in the acceptance of good English and a preference for poor diction, imperfect grammar and “dumbing down”. An obsession with playing to the gallery has replaced a focus on disciplined rigour. Germany, on the other hand, does not tolerate poor quality.
Yet it is surprising that many in Britain take the view that issues such as correct English, detailed definition and fundamental quality can be ignored. Only recently, Waterstone’s felt that the apostrophe was an irrelevance and Mid Devon Council have recently followed suit. These organisations feel it is easier to cower in the shadow of ignorance and to “move with the times” than to enforce “old fashioned” values. Rubbish.
Quality and loyalty, I argue, are defined by attention to detail. We know from bitter experience how British manufacturing has suffered by lazy, surface-led marketing and has ignored the substance of fundamental product delivery. Marketing spin, like political spin, is viewed - rightly – with contempt. The test of any message, therefore, is in the consistent demonstrability of self-evident fact.
Yet managerial indiscipline leads to collapse of message. In their weakness, managers paying scant attention to detail can rot their brands from within. What use is a well-written brochure if a website is unusable? What use a well-designed website if a poorly-written email never leads a consumer there? What use any marketing collateral lest it speak the same language – in a disciplined way – as its fellow components elsewhere in the marketing mix? What use a team of marketers if they know not what they do and have no direction from management? What use a sales person who cuts price to grab the sale and ignores all other marketing message?
Discipline, says Robert Fripp, is never an end in itself, only a means to an end. So it is that discipline in marketing message requires fundamental attention to detail in order to create inherent credibility and, ultimately, sales. So it was recently that the appointment of Kent Youth’s Police and Crime Commissioner,Paris Brown, did enormous reputational damage to the recruitment practices of that police force as a result of crass communications not matched to service delivery. Self over substance, we might say, is a curse of the modern age. An indisicipline of thought process led to significant reputational damage.
Yet message structure is also let down by message presentation. Modern politicians from the Miliband brothers to George Osborne and Ed Balls have all adopted a multi-regional ”mockney” approach to diction in order to appear as ”normal” rather than appear to be “out of touch”. The result is a lack of credibility. Indeed, careful study of TV performances of these individuals and others reveals that the greater their use of “mockney”, the more likely it is that their message is uncertain at best and mendacious at worst.
If we seek to speak in language which aims to show affinity rather than being structured to define truth then we will fail in our objectives. Such an approach is rightly seen as patronising; a classic example is the current advertising campaign for Ariel washing powder where two girls are speaking with unfeasible accents as they attempt to portray “today’s youth”. One only needs to observe the stereotypical presentation of flat-capped northerners or be-kilted ginger-haired Scotsmen to realise that this form of presentation is flawed and divisive.
Ordered, structured language – supported by packaged evidence which can be objectively assessed – leads to reader/listener conviction. Squawked claims from a soapbox do little other than to excite the basest of instincts. So it is that when we create any marketing communication it must speak in a consistent fashion so as to withstand the scrutiny of probing examination. Wherever a brand is “touched” – from strapline to sales presentation – consistency will create a much greater likelihood of success.
So marketing message – and message management – is a crucial discipline. Who is the target market? What do we offer? Why is it necessary? What will it provide? How can we prove it? If we make a claim here, are we substantiating it there? Wherever the marketing message touches the consumer – on whatever part of the customer journey – we must hold fast. Indiscipline of message will cost us sales.
If book publishers know one thing it is this: once a book is published, you have to publish more. This is because, behind the glory and beauty of the latest launch, lies a nail factory churning out product to keep cashflow strong or, more likely, just to stay afloat. There must be an alternative to this.
It is argued that pricing for a book is linked to retail practice rather than consumer value. Most publishers today are still as concerned about the retail “price point” as ever before. Yet who defines end value? The publisher? The retailer? The consumer? Ultimately, value is defined by the consumer. He or she is the only arbiter in the final decision.
If a product is desirable beyond the price suggested, then purchase is inevitable. But only by those who view the value as essential. If value is not perceived, purchase is unlikely – or requires marketing to engender that which is not immediately visible. Consequently, it can be observed, the false application of price points to the purchase of information is a nonsense. The perception of value must be self-evident if either strong profits are to be delivered or targeted volume is to be achieved.
The folly of the price point
Price points either undersell or oversell a product. It cannot be the case that information or literature is “worth” £9.99 or £19.99. Discounting and “three for two” deals for books turn purchase into a money-focused, rather than value-tuned, transaction.
Retailers argue that this tactic works, of course. And it does – with the proviso that the consumer perceives the value of the products in the bundled deal rather than the contents of the package. The only value perceived is the lower price – and the hope that the larger amount expended (spending on two books) will deliver higher intellectual value when the three books are consumed.
Price points are related only to the promotion of stock movement based on retail-orientated behaviours. They bear no relationship to the potential profit of a book. Unless, as is often the case, the publisher wants to sell out of printed stock in order to deliver the margin to the nail factory. In this case, why is the price point relevant in the digital space?
A price point surrenders value. It leaves profit on the table merely to encourage volume sales.
Try before you buy?
Let us consider the alternatives. Some have argued that digitisation of books permits the part-selling of books. Consumers can try before they buy. If we reflect on the value debate, we can see that whether a book is available in whole or in part, financial transaction is only possible if self-evident value is demonstrable. Why pay for part of something which is not understood? Would a motorcyclist buy a front wheel but not the rest of the machine?
A consequence of ”try before you buy” is to create a mini nail factory producing bit-part books whose existence and production take up more staff time. The model is a replication of the flawed larger model of price-point based product.
Maximising the brand?
It can be observed that in selling component parts - consumer testing – relies still on the conceit of brand. Publishers who do not leverage brand are now falling behind those who do. For a brand, in an uncertain world, is an emblem of certainty of experience. Anyone can publish a digital book today but at the point of purchase, the value debate comes to the fore: who would buy a book by an unknown author from a digital platform designed around financial exchange rather than quality and substance?
What use is a price point for an unknown author? It can be seen that brand – service, design, quality, delivery – is crucial to perception. Brand is therefore crucial to a publisher’s freedom in pricing to value.
Library models in the digital space are now seen as offering new potential: consumers rent a product in return for a small fee. If more value is required, the product can be rented for longer. This model is interesting but contains two signficant problems of the publisher’s own, historic, making: a book is perceived as a book and therefore has a known price – both by the publisher AND by the consumer.
It can be seen, therefore, that for information to be leveraged today, the perception of ”the book” needs to move beyond the historic book trade model. Consumers require information and are prepared to pay for it. Publishers need to sell product with inherent value. The psychological challenge therefore is in the perception of what a book actually is. A book is currently perceived as a product with a known price point.
Poor quality publishing
If we return to the publisher as nail factory, we can see that a requirement to publish a set number of “titles” per year is part of the structure to deliver an annual margin. A consequence of this process is a failure in quality. If a brand is built on quality but destroyed by the demands of volume then the brand will not survive. Or it will be damaged.
A reliance on price point has created a business model designed around volumes, margins and sales where the focus is on selling stock in sufficient quantity just to keep going. Where then individual product focus, brand potential and leveraged value?
It is argued, therefore, that publishers need to focus on niches with defined value opportunity. They need to develop brands which are equated with chargeable price. They need to nurture quality through robust commissioning. They need confidence in pricing to value. They need to establish formal links via nuanced marketing with the end user – the consumer. The publisher needs to exist as profoundly relevant in the crowded minds of the consumer.
It is clear that if publishing companies see their future still with the book trade then they are surrendering brand ownership and perception to others whose only aim is to clear stock, not sell value. The price point is the enemy value perception except in those cases where a publisher brand is only to sell product at a certain price. This, as we can see, is why many publishers are suffering with ever tighter margins. If the trade is to play a part in this process then they too need to understand that as book sellers they are selling more than books.
The book as price model? No. The publisher as price model? Yes. Brand ownership and leverage is crucial to future financial success.