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A TCI Book Review

Ice to the Eskimos - How to Sell a Product Nobody Wants

Jon Spolestra
HarperBusiness, New York, 1997, ISBN 0-88730-851-1.

This is an interesting book, containing some useful insights into marketing products that have little or no market appeal.

Jon Spolestra was a marketing consultant to, and later the President and Chief Operating Officer of, the New Jersey Nets, generally acknowledged at the time (the late eighties/early nineties) to be the worst team in the National Basketball League (NBA). By any measure, the New Jersey Nets were bad: they had the worst performance of any of the 27 teams in the league, the lowest gate receipts, and a terrible reputation for having uninspiring, less-than-mediocre, drug-addled players. By NBA standards, as well as any other reasonable business measures, the Nets were a bad product.

Spolestra's story is about how he helped the Nets turn this situation around to become a business success. Because the owners were unwilling to spend extra money on good players, he was unable to make the Nets a financial success by improving the quality of the team. Stuck with a bad product (i.e. the team itself) he had to think of other ways to market the Nets games.

He did this by essentially repositioning the product and focusing on the game experience rather than the team itself. Reasoning that when opposition teams came to town, the fans had an opportunity to see the stars on those opposing teams shine, he started marketing the quality of the competition. He also combined other elements into the overall experience, such as motivational speakers like Tom Peters giving a talk to the fans before the game (packages which sold like hotcakes to corporate clients) and barbecue dinners included in a slightly enhanced ticket price. These strategies to augment and reposition the product paid off: the Nets started selling out games, developing loyal fans who would re-subscribe year after year, and became financially successful. The team was still lousy, but the franchise became a successful business.

Based on this experience, Spolestra developed an approach to marketing a 'product that nobody wants'. He calls this approach "jump-start marketing" (an appropriate term I suppose for somebody with a basketball background). The basic principle of jump-start marketing is:

"People don't buy certain products for a reason. It doesn't happen by accident. Jump-start marketing isn't taking a product nobody wants and cramming it down their throats. It's taking a product nobody wants and repositioning, reshaping or reconfiguring it to make it something that a buyer can't refuse." (p. 212)

Spolestra articulates 19 principles or ground rules of jump-start marketing, which are:

  1. You've got to want to clip on the wires and turn up the juice. In other words you and your team must be highly motivated to try new things to reposition your product.
  2. Don't fool yourself into thinking you're somebody else - accept the realistic limitations of your core product or service, and build from there.
  3. Increase the frequency of purchases by your customers. No matter how poor your current product or service, you must have some customers or clients. One key strategic dimension that you should be thinking about is how to augment and reposition your product in order to sell more to this group.
  4. Get the name and address of the end user of your product. This is fundamental. If you sell through a distributor, you may lose the chance to get direct feedback from customers (as well as the opportunity to directly sell to them) unless you have ways and means of finding out who they are (such as names and addresses from warranty cards).
  5. The janitor isn't going to lead the charge for new customers. A focus on jump-start marketing must come from the top.
  6. Create big change with little experiments. Spolestra advocates trying little experiments to augment the basic product - initiatives that don't cost much time or money but that may pay off big dividends in terms of customer reaction. He suggests that what he terms 'terrorist groups for innovation' (a group within the company that wants to pursue new innovative marketing ideas) be formed within the organization to pursue these ideas.
  7. Don't wait for a new product to bail you out - use innovative marketing now.
  8. To get your ideas approved by the boss, prepare as if you were defending yourself in front of the Supreme Court. When you and your team have innovative jump-start marketing ideas, make sure you do your homework in order to get them approved. Even these little innovations have to be justified in terms of the potential return-on-investment.
  9. Only sell a product that the customer wants to buy. See point #15.
  10. Get the feel for jump-start marketing outside the ivory tower. In order to really get a feel for what the customer wants, and develop ideas as to how the product or service could be repositioned, senior management must get on the front lines with the customer. This requires them manning the ticket desk occasionally, getting behind the counter, going along on sales calls, etc.
  11. Only target people who are interested in your product. Don't waste resources trying to spread your (repositioned) message to all people - identify your key accounts and most likely customers, and go after them.
  12. Don't let research make the decision for you. Spolestra is frankly suspicious of market research:
"Research can fool you all the time.

It can particularly fool you when major decisions are to be made. With major decisions - where somebody has to be sold on something - big professional research firms are brought in for credibility. A ton of money is spent. It's understandable that more credibility is given to these huge research reports than to the free research.

When all the big research dollars have been spent, however, it's time for some free research before the final decision is made. Free research is going to your customers and talking to them one-on-one. If you talk to enough of them, you'll get that very clear mosaic of what your customers are feeling. That type of research will not fool you." (p.161)

  1. Make your client a bona fide, real-life hero. The emphasis in this point is to ensure that your largest immediate customers (in Spolestra's example, it was the people responsible for purchasing season's tickets for large corporations) look like a hero in the eyes of their superiors (which of course makes it all the more likely that they will be customers again - and probably larger customers -next year). In support of this, he would produce an annual report for the corporate customer showing the value of the season's tickets, the number of exposures that the company would have realized, etc. Copies were then given to the immediate customer who could then pass one along to his or her boss.
  2. Run interference for your budding superstars. People who share a passion and a talent for jump-start marketing are invaluable, and should be nurtured and encouraged within your organization.
  3. Make it too good of a deal on purpose. This is a fundamental point. Spolestra maintains that you must find some way of repositioning or reformulating your product or service to make it something that your potential customers simply cannot refuse. With the New Jersey Nets, one of the ways they did this was to package a barbecue family dinner and drinks with the game. They managed their costs so that the dinner alone was a bargain for the ticket price, to say nothing of the game being thrown in as part of the deal. Tickets were sold by the thousands, the games were standing room only, and the franchise made lots of money. Again, we see this approach of de-emphasizing the core product (the quality of the team), and augmenting and repositioning an enhanced product in its place.
  4. Feel free to butt into other departments. Jump-start marketing cannot be confined to the marketing or sales department alone. Because it involves (sometimes drastically) reformulating the product or service, it must cut across the various departments in the organization. The people who do this may run into problems, and this is where rule # 14 comes into play.
  5. Differentiate between big and little customers. Spolestra maintains that you cannot afford to treat your customers like a democracy. You largest accounts deserve more time and attention than your smallest accounts (and probably should be somehow rewarded for being your largest accounts).
  6. When the going gets rough, increase expenses that are not fixed, like salespeople. Spolestra views salespeople on commission or contract (assuming they can do their job) as almost a guaranteed investment - they will return more to the organization than they will cost. Accordingly, the more the merrier, and especially in times of financial difficulty, this non-fixed expense should be increased.
  7. Jumping higher than you think you can is possible with jump-start marketing. In his final point he emphasizes that jump-start marketing is fun, and that an organization will likely be surprised at how much can be achieved through the application of these principles. So, he suggests, set the bar high and go for it!

While sports is the industry from which most of the examples in the book are drawn from, this is most definitely not a sports marketing book. There are many good observations and insights through Ice to the Eskimos, and it makes for a very entertaining and enjoyable read besides.




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