We live in a world dominated by image builders. In my youth, products and services were sold largely on the strength of their end use. Coffeepots to make coffee – cars to provide reliable transportation – telephones to communicate – underwear to provide a cover between your private parts, your clothes and the outside world.
With the exception of a few commodities – gas, oil, generic tuna fish, concrete – little is offered for sale and even less purchased with the real end use the determining factor.
In the early 70's we rented our first Chicago apartment in an ancient four-story walkup in Old Town on the near north side of the city. The nicest feature was a real wood burning fireplace. Having never dealt with the beast, I made all the standard novice errors – damp wood – lousy kindling – improper placement.
I had about given up ever creating more than acrid smoke when I saw on local television an ad for Fireplace Fuel Company on Western Avenue, starring the owner, one Carter Cole, a gravel-voiced Southerner whose pitch was built around selling love and romance, not firewood.
Shortly after seeing this spot, someone in the neighborhood told us that Carter sold the best firewood in the city – and while very expensive - $50 for a trunk full – it was worth the experience just to spend a few minutes with Cole.
We drove out into what proved to be in 1971 a rough neighborhood of warehouses and located Fireplace Fuel. After explaining to Carter our inadequacies and frustrations, he volunteered to deliver personally for $75, a small load – stack it for us – and show us how to create the perfect setting for love and romance.
The large pile of partially charred logs in our firebox caused him obvious discomfort. After cleaning out the never burned logs, he explained the classic andiron "Z" placement – a flat faced back log, flat faced front log, and top log to complete the "Z" – six balled up single sheets of the Chicago Tribune placed under the "Z" – a match – and quickly a blazing fire. He went on to explain the importance of building a bed of glowing ash, which once achieved guaranteed to ignite even the largest log in the stack.
It recently occurred to me that Carter Cole, a blue-collar seller of firewood, was a 21st Century marketer, 30 years before his time. Carter suspected that selling dry wood that burned made him a commodity seller – love and romance – real value added.
At about the same time Swatch entered the popular priced watch business with a dazzling array of colorful high fashion faces, which all but put Timex, who dominated the drug counter market, out of business. "Takes a lickin and keeps on tickin" doesn't ignite the same passion to purchase as the Swatch bikini coordinate.
Rolex, the world's leader in luxury watches, sells jewelry which coordinates with luxury cars and America's Cup Racers, which also happen to keep OK time. No one buys the watch for that added benefit. In fact you can purchase automatic watches for less than $20 from pushcarts in any big city that are more accurate than an "Oyster Perpetual Superlative Chronometer."
Tag Heuer fills the need which most of us have to see ourselves diving off the Barrier Reef or participating in a dirt bike rally. The sport utility phenomenon makes four wheel wannabe's out of urban and suburban commuters. I read recently that light trucks and sport utility vehicles represent nearly half of all cars sold in the U.S. and on average are in four-wheel drive about one hour a year.
Nike dominates the athletic shoe business around the world paying huge sums of money to Tiger and Michael so that millions of overweight couch potatoes feel sporty, overeating at the local fast food joint.
It is difficult to make money selling a plain white Jockey short – much easier with a two-tone Calvin Klein brief. The underwear department at Sears sells necessities – Victoria's Secret, fantasies. Target projects youthful cache at volume prices. Montgomery Ward – W.T. Grant – Woolworth died giving us outstanding value but little else.
Michael Dell sells instantaneous access to the worldwide market for ideas, information, goods and services. IMAX takes the launch pad out of the office and puts it on display – a piece of art.
In almost everything we buy, from condoms to vitamin pills, the outside, design, color, package is at least as important as the essential use or performance of the product.
To be mature - sensible – serviceable – is to be an Oldsmobile or a Plymouth – in a museum not a garage.
Carter Cole recognized he could entice young urban couples to drive out to Western Avenue for the tools to create champagne trysts, and to make a profit in return.
General Motors might be better off finding someone like Carter Cole before Buick and Cadillac join Oldsmobile in the museum.