Each Christmas, Eden and I take the long drive on Highway 101 from the Bay Area to Los Angeles to spend Christmas with my parents. In recent years -- after Isaac was born -- the annual trip has become an event of sorts, and the journey itself is now as important as the destination. We now stop for an overnight, generally in the San Luis Obispo area, the halfway point. We like The Pismo Lighthouse Suites, because (a) it is comfortable, and, yes, (b) because it is in Pismo Beach, a place that has great personal value to me because I always wondered about it as a boy in New York City. Pismo Beach, you might recall, is where Bugs Bunny went when he took the wrong turn at Albuquerque.
This Christmas, the power of kitsch has weighed heavily on my mind, and the visit to Pismo -- a run-down coastside town better known today for its clams, juvenile delinquents, and middle-aged bikers -- triggered an unusual amount of Holiday introspection about the business I am in. The actual trigger was a visit to a kitschy candy store in a penny arcade where they sold a number of items you're unlikely to find anywhere, except for, of course, in towns like Pismo Beach, a perfect venue for selling of junk-food nostalgia to people old enough to value them and silly enough to buy them. I did not resist the impulse this year. Didn't go overboard -- there was an expensive vintage soda ad that caught my fancy, and I passed on it -- but I did use my son Isaac as the excuse for purchasing a few items from the childhood I never quite had. I bought Isaac a Lightning McQueen Pez, a mini-size Moonpie, and a few sheets of Necco Candy Buttons (arguably the junkiest candy in the world). Isaac, who has just begun to enjoy candy, clearly was not expecting the windfall; his Mom and Dad are pretty strict when it comes to this sort of thing. But it only happened because Dad wasn't really buying candy for Isaac. He was buying something else, and that something else seemed to compensate for both the cash and the guilt that all that junk cost him.---
On a recent business trip with a client, we were re-routed to Westchester County to avoid a rainstorm at J.F.K. It was small plane, and a very bumpy ride, and there were several moments when I saw my life flash by, as the old cliché goes. Must have happened to my client, too, because he got into a particularly giddy mood and began telling me about his early days in the marketing business when he worked on the "packaging experience" team at Apple during the first years of the Macintosh. If there is one company that understands the user experience, it is Apple. So important is it to them -- my client explained -- that they include physical packaging as part of the experience. The Apple team even came up with a faux Japanese name for the concept -- as a stand-in, let's call it kitschitomo -- which was supposed to denote the sensation you feel when first opening the box that holds your first Apple product. The idea is that you will get so excited that you will just have to pick up the phone -- perhaps an Apple phone someday -- and call all your friends to tell them about the gift you just got. The faux Japanese concept seems to fit. My client told me about a Japanese store in San Francisco that has elevated physical packaging to an art form. One Christmas, he and his wife bought each other gifts from that store, but never opened them (a contemporary telling of the Gift of the Magi). Opening the packages would have spoiled the experience.
That might sound a little extreme -- the art of packaging fetishized -- but consider the Pez that I bought Isaac the other day. Does anyone buy Pez for the candy? Not likely. More likely they buy Pez for the dispenser, or the memory of buying Pez as a child. The Pez people, from the very beginning, have understood that they're in the user experience business, not the candy business, and that there's little sense in focusing on the quality and flavor of the candy (chalky, tart, forgettable). And for a more contemporary example, remember what Starbucks founder Howard Schultz once said: "we are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee."
Coffee purists, I am sure, would agree. Starbucks is not in the coffee business. But is there anything wrong with that? During the holiday season, when the entire Western World is under the constant assault of marketers, advertisers, and PR people, I believe it pays to pull back a little and be philosophical. The senselessness of shopping for shopping's sake is at least one of the causes of the emptiness and melancholy so many people feel this time of the year. Yes, shopping and gift-giving help us to connect with people. And yes they drive the American economy, which as a journalist friend recently observed would be even more obvious if you had to cover the consumer electronics industry. But it is the consumer economy that they drive, and you do not need to be a grinch to know that this is not all good. Next year, before you purchase the first gift of the Christmas season, ask yourself three questions:
What am I buying -- is it the item itself, or the experience that the product or service promises to deliver?
If I am buying the experience, does it really make sense to get that experience through this product or service, or is there another way?As the Onion once observed, it's not like you can bond with your son by making him a PlayStation, but you get the idea.
OK, you still want to buy the dumb gift, but does it really matter?In the end, shopping is a personal choice, and if after this little dose of life-examining introspection, you still want to listen to the schnook within -- after all, we're human, and there's a little schnook in each of us -- go ahead. Yes, the life unexamined is not worth living. But a life examined in its entirety is unbearable. Just keep the schnook inside of you in check, lest he steal Christmas, and make you feel dumb the morning after (beware the schnook that stole Christmas). The ultimate user experience -- and it's one that marketers ought to think about in this so-called age of transparency -- is feeling a little less stupid on Christmas. Moxie soda. Applying the three-point system above, in retrospect, I fully understood what i was doing: (1) I was buying a bit of kitschy American history that would enable me to send a virtual Christmas gift to a fellow blogger (Miss Moxie), (2) there was no other way of getting that weird experience, and (3) who cares anyway? Well, as it turns out, I got even more than I expected. Curious about the soda, I did some research later that day and discovered that Moxie was the first mass-marketed beverage in the U.S. and that it outsold Coca-Cola in the 20's. Moxie is, in fact, a great case study in marketing and user experience. patent medicine (most carbonated beverages began that way), the product was repackaged with great spunk and verve by adman Frank Archer who pulled stunts like creating automobiles equipped with large paper-mache horses that would tour the nation's cities (a brilliant and funny idea because city-dwellers back then were just getting used to the idea of horseless carriages -- "hey, you can put the horse in the carriage"). Moxie was the favorite soda of Calvin Coolidge an even better case study on how a sweeter, better tasting beverage may not be the most popular. But after the Great Depression, the soda industry belonged not to Moxie -- a company that marketed itself so well that it became part of the American vernacular (Moxie the brand gave birth to moxie the word, not the other way around) -- but to Coca-Cola and Pepsi which would then go on to package, market and sell to "our schnook within" for generations to come. But I owe this holiday revelation not to Coke but to Moxie, which in its new "blue cream" version (sans gentian root, the key ingredient in the real Moxie soda), I must admit, is not bad. Not exactly what the practitioners of kitschitomo would hope (I will not be calling friends to rave about it), but not bad. Not bad at all.