Keeper of the “goodies”

At a recent visit to a Mets game (sorry I can’t bring myself to call it anything other than Shea Stadium) I was reminded of a story about baseball tickets.

Like many companies that entertain customers and clients, Seagram had a designated employee that handled customer/trade events and trips, national sales incentive programs and – the big prize – season tickets to sporting events in the NYC area.

One of these individuals, who I will call Mr. Keeper, was a nice and friendly guy until the subject of tickets came up. He didn’t see himself merely as the guardian or custodian of the coveted seats. Oh no, he was the protector, the de facto owner. Requests for tickets to a game were more often than not subjected to interrogation as to the identity of the intended customer and the rationale behind the request. And, invariably, unless the requestor was of significant ‘rank’ the request was denied outright or “someone else already got them.”

The management of the US operation passed to a new team and Mr. Keeper got an assignment outside of the US operation but still based in NYC.

The team that took over had its own designated employee to handle the customer relations, events and incentive trips. But when the first need for ballgame tickets arose, Mr. Keeper informed the new designate that the seats will be staying with Mr. Keeper and will be doled out as he saw fit.

Needless to say the new team was incensed and a (gentle) management skirmish erupted. But, with bigger issues to be addressed, the matter was set aside — not forgotten, just temporarily tabled.

One day, a senior executive asked for and grudgingly received tickets to a top notch Mets game.

While he knew the general vicinity on the field level where the seats were located, he wasn’t sure as to the exact location. He stopped an usher at the top of the section and handed the tickets to him. The usher looked at the tickets, looked at the executive, then back at the tickets, then at the executive again.

“Anything wrong?” asked the executive.

“Oh no,” said the usher. “I’m just surprised that you’re sitting in Mr. Keeper’s seats.”

For all I know he still has those seats.

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New product failures I have known – Old Breed

I thought I would look at some world-class new product failures and see if there is some learning behind what happened. Let’s start with Old Breed.

When I arrived at Seagram the product was in a few markets and was failing miserably. The premise was interesting. The owner, aware of ‘shot and a beer’ consumption, decided that a beer flavored whiskey was a good idea and pushed for it.

I suppose that the equivalency issue also had a role to play. A blurring of the lines between beer and spirits sort of makes them equivalent from a product standpoint and flies in the face of the lack of equivalency in excise taxes.

Finally, beer flavored whiskey was seen as a novel new product idea.

The product failed on all counts. Wanting a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser is not the same as a whiskey that tastes like beer. There are expectations about the taste of a shot with a beer that can’t be met with a bottled version. Even if the product tasted great, it can’t replicate the fresh version – much less with a product that tasted like stale beer.

Everyone knew this, I learned when I got there, but no one wanted to tell the emperor that his baby was ugly (to mix metaphors).

So the product limped along until a trade researcher interviewed a retailer who went ballistic when asked about Old Breed as in, “tell them to get this crap out of here.”

What I love about market research is that political correctness has little to no role to play in providing information. As a result, the owner learned what the management team was loath to tell him. The product was pulled from the shelves the next day.

Lessons learned:

To succeed a new product has to be both unique and relevant.

Concepts and premises can be brilliant but the product must deliver. It’s about what’s in the bottle.

A management team concerned about being candid will not succeed.

And, a corporate culture that creates an environment that punishes the messenger is doomed to failure.

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The Best Meal in Town

To a large extent the booze business is in the entertainment industry with food and drink at the core. After a hard day of meetings, conflicts and difficult decisions, then and now, people in the industry go to dinner — partly for business, partly to get to know the local colleagues/adversaries and partly for the meal.

One of the senior Seagram executives was known for his love of Italian food. He was and is a real gourmet, with knowledge of pasta, sauces and the differences among regional Italian cuisines.

One day he found himself in Montgomery Alabama on a market visit. It was a long day of meetings with the trade, consumers and local Seagram people.

At the end of the day, the Seagram manager said in a southern drawl, “Mr. Smith, it’s been a long, hard day and I know how you enjoy your eye-talian food and ah’ve arranged for us to have dinnah at the best eye-talian restaurant in Montgomery.”

“Really?” said the worn-out exec. “Where are we going?”

“The best place in town…Olive Garden.”

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