By Ben Langlotz | December 10, 2019 | Marketing | 0 Comments
How did you react when you first saw this truck? On social media, especially among gun industry people, I saw two opposite reactions. One was: “I ordered mine already” (or the admiring equivalent). The other was horrified, that it doesn’t look like a truck (or like an El Camino mated with a Pontiac Aztec).
Obviously, no one was talking down the design because they work for a traditional automaker and found it threatening. But there is clearly something threatening about a radical new design for a traditional product that normally carries lots of emotion. And I think there are lessons to be learned about the risks and benefits of innovation.
I often write that when selling (and branding) in a competitive market of traditional products, “It’s better to stand out than to fit in.” I urge this mindset on startups whose primary instinct is to position their product and to brand themselves to fit in with the established successful companies they hope to compete with. This is a good idea only in rare instances when the newcomer has some advantage over the establishment. It’s hard to think of one, but perhaps some more efficient manufacturing process, or some other advantageous feature that might even be patentable. Most of the time, the newcomer simply wants to get into the business (making AR15 rifles or parts, for instance) but doesn’t have a reason for buyers to switch brands. When I ask newcomers what unique advantage they offer customers, I predict doom for them if their reply is something like “It’s from billet,” or “It’s more precise.” I look for true innovation to set a newcomer apart. And that innovation can be in styling or branding alone (Black Rifle Coffee doesn’t taste any better, after all).
How Innovative Really Is That Tesla Truck?
I have no idea whether that truck is really much different from the other Tesla cars that 40% of my neighbors drive. I assume it’s a nice high-tech vehicle, but what makes it grab our attention is the styling. Image.
This is an emotional issue that either inspires or threatens. But everyone is paying attention. Honestly, what other product launch could I put on the newsletter cover in the past 5 years that I’d know EVERY reader would recognize? A new iPhone? Boring. Some hoverboard toy? Disappointing – I just learned they have wheels, and don’t actually hover. Seriously, what new product got us talking like this? What product launch got people sharing their reservation number on Facebook? Ever?
I have no desire to order one, but I guarantee that they’ll be every other vehicle on the North Dallas Tollway in five years. I certainly admire the design of a truck that looks nothing like trucks but redefines what a truck looks like. Why shouldn’t a truck look like a military jet or warship superstructure? That’s “truckier” than all the trucks that follow the curvaceous styling cues of cars, delayed by about 20 years. I don’t know Elon Musk well enough to guess what the meeting was like, but this feels like it captures the last time a truck was truly and distinctively cool: when the Terminator was the first to make a real Hummer his road-hogging daily driver, long before they made a Hummerized Suburban the faint equivalent.
The boy inside of me (who played with Hot Wheels as a kid) still loves a Lamborghini because it looks like it was sketched by a daydreaming schoolboy. (Incidentally, a Dallas lawyer friend with whom I shared this desire cautioned me that everyone he knew who ever bought a Lambo suffered a curse-like misfortune often involving law enforcement or the IRS – they probably give special attention to owner lists). When my three-year-old Leo is old enough to appreciate it without needing a rear-facing car seat in the back, we’ll rent one on Turo for a weekend, and get it out of our systems.
And on the subject of those $100 refundable Tesla reservations, some worriers said this must be illegal because you can’t take a deposit on a product that doesn’t exist. Frankly, that’s silly. You know what Tesla is really doing? They are SELLING the right to be on their marketing list. That $10,000,000+ in revenue is nothing. The mailing list is worth a fortune. And they can sell more than vehicles to the kind of people who impulsively commit (at least in their minds and before revealing to their wives) to a $50,000 purchase based on a social media glimpse.
So, let’s interrupt for a second and each ask ourselves: What do I have to sell to someone who buys a non-existent high-dollar product with almost no marketing? How much would you pay per name to reach that list? And what do you have to offer them? It’s been said to “always have an upsell.” Do you have something that’s a 10x cost version of your typical sale? How about 100x? 1000x? There’s a reason Starbucks offers $1000 coffee machines to people who buy $3 cups of coffee: some have more money to spend. Some of your customers probably do too.
They’ll Crawl Over Broken Glass To Buy It!
I doubt many of my readers were fooled by the “broken glass” stunt. As an engineer (the type who builds a protype that seems right, then makes it stronger where it breaks – not the type who does finite element analysis) I think the most likely explanation of the broken window test on the world stage is that they did it ON PURPOSE. Like Trump Tweeting “covfefe” and not correcting the spelling “error” this was most likely an attention getter – there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Technically, the question of whether a steel ball will break glass is knowable with great confidence. Just as we all know how firearm drop tests work, and how many dozens or hundreds of drops can be experienced without a discharge, ever, glass strength tests must certainly be as confident. They couldn’t not have known.
The thing that made me smile most about the “failed test” wasn’t just the smiles of the testers – maybe they were in on the joke, or maybe the joke was on them – but how the error gave immediacy and authenticity to the unveiling. “Oops!” There are marketing experts who have literally advised me to leave typos in this newsletter because then it seems more authentic to the reader. But I promise that all the typos are unintentional, and we’re just too busy and human to get it right (which when you think about it is exactly their point, so I suppose they’re right).
But what struck me as brilliant was the idea of glass being the biggest “Who cares?!” failure I could imagine. A flat tire would be similar, but boring, and no one would believe it. Glass is more visual, emotional, and dramatic. Here’s the thing: no one makes a vehicle purchase decision based on the glass. And even if that were important, no one cares if a prototype doesn’t have the glass worked out yet. Maybe Elon’s one step ahead of us – maybe there is a major glass improvement in the future that will affect our purchasing decisions, and if that’s true this sets the stage perfectly and whets our appetite for news about it. “Tesla glass” might be a hot trending topic in the wake of the “PR disaster” in a way it never would have.
Who Loved It Tells Us A Lot.
This is risky for me because some readers might be offended to learn of my biases, and because I’m not being very flattering to the traditionalists who don’t “get” the Tesla truck. But I have to say that I found a statistical correlation in my social media between inventors of patentable technology and positive reaction to the Tesla design. My other social media friends who are awesome shooting instructors and even gun rights activists tended not to like the design, while the innovators loved it. And this isn’t about who is smarter or who has better taste, because the best shooting educators probably do best with a focus on tried and true traditional methods and look skeptically at newfangled methods until soberly proven out. But crazy inventors love a little more craziness. Somehow, it’s the guys who make products that didn’t exist 5 years ago (and that half the industry thinks are crazy) that love a crazy new design.
What Would Elon Do?
OK, so what can a gun industry company owner or executive like you learn from all this? Imagine that instead of the SHOT Show you’re at the Auto Show, and every company has its new lineup of pickup trucks on display. And you have to look hard to see what’s new, or even to see what’s different from booth to booth. All the trucks look alike, and no one cares. But at the SHOT Show they’re not trucks, they’re pistols, and rifles, and scopes, and accessories. And as a rule, they’re just as look-alike and humdrum.
Now imagine that the SHOT Show booth across from yours was exhibiting a rifle with a radical, controversial, love-it-or-hate-it design. Totally different from anything before. Your show experience would be four days of a packed aisle, with all the backs turned to you. No one would be able to get past. You would hardly be able to hear yourself in your own booth, and it would be a constant stream of social media figures and international media with their LED klieg lights illuminating their podcasts.
You know the scene, and everyone wishes it was his own booth. I see it occasionally, such as when a client releases something big we’ve been patenting. But when have we seen something that created the emotional gut reaction of the Tesla truck unveiling? And how to model that path to success in our context?
The answer depends on your own company’s profile and approach, but I urge readers to search for inspiration from the Tesla crazies. Have an internal design contest with the craziest idea getting a day off, or free parking in the boss’ space, or a cash prize. Engage your customers with a design contest (like those “Draw Winky” correspondence art school ads in the back of pulp magazines). Or get serious and engage an industrial designer like Allen Elishewitz (or some twenty-something talented kid) to create a “concept.”
Speaking of crowded aisles and new product releases, it will be about a month to SHOT when this reaches you. There’s still time for us to run quick searches to verify your new brand names are safe to use, and even to get applications filed. We can also lock in a pre-release first-to-file provisional patent application filing date in advance of the show to ensure that any patent rights are reserved only for you if your new product turns out to be a hit. Give me a call any time if you have questions about how we can help.