Barbies In A Basket; or, Why We Love Hannah Montana

Straight from the horse’s mouth, off of our Twitter Feed:  @DarkTower – Amazon’s stated goal yesterday: Anything with a UPC available to ship from an Amazon warehouse.

We love Hannah Montana, we really do.  In my family, we watch her just about every night, along with Raven, Zach and Cody, The Wizards of Waverly Place, and just about anything else that Disney throws at us.  I would like to say that this is just because we have young kids, but we would probably watch the Disney Channel on our own, just us parents.  The fact is – and it’s a secret so don’t tell anybody – we do watch without the kids.

(Dang, did I just say that out loud? Well, forget I said it, okay? Totally wrecks my image, I know…)

This is pretty amazing, considering that outside of Dirty Jobs and the occasional sporting or political event, we watch no other television.  The shows on Disney are fun, refreshing, have good values, and – mostly – they remind us of the TV we watched growing up.  The plot lines are right out of  I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and The Brady Bunch.  Of course, the Disney versions star preternaturally charismatic, talented t/weens that make us wonder how far Disney has come with their animatronics technology, but that’s okay.  (Note to self:  Is Stepford a Disney product?  Hmmm…)  Mostly, they’re just really likable kids you might want to know in real life, or at least seem to be.  

By contrast, then there’s Barbie, who turns 50 later this month.  She’s not showing her age (she’s plastic, after all), but make no mistake:  She’s old news.  We have two daughters, and one is thirteen and the other is five.  When you have daughters, the Barbie products just come with the territory. We’ve never bought either of them anything Barbie, and yet each Christmas or birthday there’s another one there, somehow.  It just happens, and all the little shiny bits of plastic bling pile into a big basket.  Last year, our thirteen-year-old spontaneously gifted her life-time collection of Barbie stuff to our five-year-old, so we had to get a bigger basket.  I’m not sure that the dolls have moved, since.  To our girls, Barbie has lost her mojo, and I’m not sure she ever had it with them, anyway.

On the Disney Channel, there are no product ads, at all.  This is strange in a day when even PBS has Chuck E. Cheese and cereal ads.  Forget about being ad-free with Barbie, where even the ads have ads, and all of it for more plastic stuff.  What Disney advertises instead is their culture.  When you watch Disney, you only see ads about Disney.  And these ads aren’t about Disney stuff, they’re ads about other Disney franchises:  Upcoming movies, new televisions series, music from their latest teen phenomenon, and the like.  They also have PSA’s about being active, the environment, and “doing your best.”  These PSA’s are downright inspiring.  Good stuff, really; I’d show them to Team Pemba during our PEMBaway retreats if I could get copies.

Where Disney succeeds and Barbie fails is that they get that it’s all about perpetuating their culture, from generation to generation.  They already hooked my wife and me when we were kids, and by writing just enough from our childhood into franchises geared to our children, they are assuring that we help hook our kids on Disney as well.  Plus, we actually like to go to Disneyland; stepping on one of Barbie’s plastic high-heeled booties in the middle of the night, not so much.

This is a lesson that we in the outdoor industry should take to heart.  We need to do a better job of selling our culture across generations.  We’ve gotten away from this, perhaps because it’s easier to make metrics that support product-oriented advertising.  The theory here is that if you take out an ad that features a purple jacket, you can watch to see if sales increase in purple jackets, and thus justify your ROI.  (Don’t get me wrong:  ROI is a good metric, but it’s not everything.)  Or maybe it’s because we in the outdoor industry have long hung our hats on esoteric expeditions to far-flung places.  Never mind that most of us don’t have time anymore even to dream about such things, the truth is that long before Messner declared that we’d killed the impossible these expeditions stopped capturing our imaginations.  The remote isn’t that remote, and even if it is, it’s far-far-away in our minds, today.

If we’re focused solely on selling the shiny plastic stuff, we’re really just waiting to be shucked into the big bucket in the garage.  It seems a truth already that mostly we are just selling to ourselves.  We have to find ways to be more relevant to our customers’ daily lives, and to find ways to be more relevant to more people, also.  Culturally, we should own the green market, bicycle commuting, local recreation, and family activities, and we don’t.  The fact is, we don’t even own our own customers anymore.

While we wrestle with the idea of adopting new distribution channels, our customer is already going elsewhere.  It’s seems old-school to think about being the “first” or “only” distributor of a given item in a given market – most of our customers are already ahead of us, and are in fact leading the way, away.  While many spend time worrying about somebody else who’s selling the same stuff, others – like Midwest Mountaineering, not incidentally – just focus on designing an experience that perpetuates their culture.

We’re not an industry that can thrive by selling things.  To be successful, more of us need to spend more time selling our culture, and less time worrying about selling stuff.

10 responses to “Barbies In A Basket; or, Why We Love Hannah Montana

  1. Amen Brother. Well said.

    The next article is gonna talk about how we do this right? ;-)

  2. We’ll just call it an ongoing conversation.

    And copying Disney (Apple, Amazon, Google) hasn’t hurt anybody very much now, has it?

  3. “Thieves never steal bells.” – Tibetan proverb…

  4. “experience design is driven by consideration of the moments of engagement, or touchpoints, between people and brands, and the ideas,emotions, and memories that these moments create”

    this is the killer quote at:

  5. ps: Thanks for the comments, David.

    Did you make up the Tibetan quote? If so, well done!

  6. That’s the best thing I’ve read in a long time Brad, thanks.

    Disney is so effective at delivering an experience (and controlling every variable of it). Do your kids do those ‘roller coaster tycoon’ games yet? But they control every variable in the environment…our business is founded in ‘adventure’, which involves (by definition) unknown outcomes.

    So controlling the unknown outcomes somehow…is that it?

    Better have a drink and ponder.

  7. Thanks Kenji, I’m glad you liked it.

    Disney does control the process better than most, but they are still outcome-oriented. Their desired outcome can maybe be stated as “100% happiness from 100% of our available customers, 100% of the time.” Euro-Disney notwithstanding, most of the time they deliver on this.

    Google has the same goal, but they don’t control the process. They just do a good job of enticing their customers to seek the destination, and then providing pathways to get there, and buffets of options to choose from once you find your way.

    Apple has a slightly different goal. They want to make technology so seamless that once you start using it you can’t imagine your life without it. Oh, and it’s cool, too. The product is just the vehicle for the experience, and a kick-ass accessory, too.

    So if we say our goal is that we want to facilitate adventure, then we need to say something more than “buy this purple jacket,” or “use the same purple jacket that Joe Rad used on Rumdoodle.” Instead, we need to say,”Hey, you can have adventures close to home, every day, and this purple jacket will work as well there as it would on anything else you might want to do.”

    We should say to our customers: “Want local adventure? Commit to riding your bike for all trips less than 2 miles away, 100% of the time regardless of the weather: it’s green, it’s good for you, it’s fun, it’s a challenge, and – by the way – this purple jacket works great for bicycle commuting.”

    Personally, I think that the surge we experienced in the Outdoor Industry after the markets tanked last fall was due to the fact that a lot of people turned wants into needs. They used to say,”I’ve always wanted to climb Rumdoodle like Joe Rad, and that purple jacket would be just what I want for a trip like that, if ever I take it.” Last fall, that changed to,”I need a warm jacket so I can stand at the bus stop in all weather, and that purple jacket is the one – I’ll take it.”

    Don’t get me wrong: I make my living by selling stuff, and most of my companies make esoteric and innovative things for the Nth degree consumer. Thank goodness that they also make headlamps, grocery bags, and fleece for everybody else, too.

    We just need to ground our products into experiences and lifestyle images that are relevant to more people. We can do this without selling our soul – quite the contrary – and without cheapening our products. We just need to get more people thinking about how outdoor products can change their lives and their world, and get less people thinking about Product X and $XXX.00 price, at these – and only these – five locations.

    Sigh – sorry – soapboxing again. Happy Valentine’s Day.

  8. I completely agree with selling the culture. I got my cousin out cross country skiing today, which he had never done and he had a blast wants to go back get gear rent a room etc. I started in the Windsurfing business which was all about the lifestyle. Fun regattas, freestyle at the beach. As the sport got tech-ed out and the focus shifted to profits it lost people (and profits).

    As far as Disney I feel they may be the only group that has gone beyond FOX with their Fauxumentary on September 11 which combined real footage with fiction so we keep to a few DVD’s. We did not have cable in the states and had no TV for the last 6 months we were there. Here TV is a tool to learn Italian but we seldom watch it. The only thing i would have wanted to watch was the Marcialonga and the coverage was live so I was skiing.

  9. Thanks for your comments, Fred.

    Regarding Disney, yeah, they’re not perfect. I still haven’t quite forgiven them for Pete’s Dragon, myself.

    See you soon…

  10. The outcome shops should/could be working on is “Creating Great Outdoor Experiences”.

    My feeling is that if a customer is thinking about:
    – how poorly their boots fit
    – how cold they slept
    – how wet they got
    We missed a huge opportunity. And by “We” I mean shops, manufacturers and humanity in general.

    Because, while that custy is nursing their blisters they’re:
    1. Cursing the shop they bought the boots from.
    2. Missing out on Life Changing Moments in the wilderness.

    Small Picture.
    Shops can help translate the customer belief that having the right gear will help them be more comfortable in the wild.

    Big Picture.
    Transformational Life Experiences tend to happen more frequently in wild places (IMHO). Locally, or Far Away.

    In my experience, shops that work towards fulfilling both big/small picture custy needs are the most successful.