May 29, 2009

Kevin Harrington To Star In ABC's 'Shark Tank'

Kevin Harrington, an industry veteran and founder of OmniReliant Holdings, is making his primetime debut this summer as part of a new Mark Burnett reality show called Shark Tank.

According to ABC, the show "gives budding entrepreneurs the chance to make their dreams come true and become successful — and possibly wealthy — business people. But the entrepreneurs must first try to convince five tough, multi-millionaire tycoons to part with their own hard-earned cash and give them the funding they need to jumpstart their ideas."

You can watch the promo for the show below. I did, and I think it looks great. Sort of a cross between American Inventor and The Apprentice with Kevin and his co-sharks getting to switch off playing the part of The Donald.

(DRTV Reality Show Fun Fact: Kevin's brother, Tim, appears in Episode Two of Pitchmen as OmniReliant is the marketer/financier behind that episode's hit product, Dual Saw.)

May 28, 2009

Coming Next Week: Three Guest Reviews

After the great response I got to Dick Wechsler's recent guest post on DRTV media, I've decided to bring back a feature I experimented with in October of last year -- guest reviews by people I like and respect in the industry.

Last year, Anthony Sullivan wrote five guest reviews for me. This year, I am inviting several other DRTV experts to participate, starting with John Miller and Peter Hutton of Hutton-Miller.

John and Peter are the brain trust behind such well known DRTV hits as Mighty Putty, Mighty Mendit, Bendaroos, Strap Perfect, Slim Clip (recently named the Best Infomercial Of All Time) and many, many others. They are from a rare breed of producers who are also excellent marketers.

Next week, I will be posting three guest reviews by these esteemed colleagues of mine. It's all part of a larger effort to make this blog even more interesting and educational. But there's a second motivation behind it as well.

My goal has always been to make The SciMark Report a comprehensive record of every new DRTV commercial that gets tested. Fortunately, I am being asked to get involved in more and more of these projects, which makes reviewing them problematic to say the least. In such cases going forward, rather than not posting a review at all, I will ask a guest to comment instead.

And now a word from John and Peter about the coming week:

To blog or not to blog? That is the question ... As marketers in the DRTV industry for many years, we know how hard is to make a successful commercial. That’s why we were initially reluctant to take this assignment and dissect the work of other producers. 

At the same time, a good critique is a good critique. Period. We have always been open to honest feedback and valid criticism with our spots and shows, and have consequently gained valuable insight. 

So with that said, we'll critique these spots as openly and directly as we would want in return.

I can attest to what John and Peter wrote: They have always accepted my criticism of their work with humility and an open mind.

I'm looking forward to a fun and fascinating week!

Review: Space Bag To Go

Description: Space Bags specially designed for travel, air comes out by rolling or pushing down
Main Pitch: "They compress your items so you can create twice as much space and eliminate stress and baggage fees."
Main Offer: $19.95 for 4 medium, 4 large and 2 push-down bags
Bonus: Hanging Bag (just pay S&H)
Marketer: ITW Space Bag
Producer: Envision Response
Product (D7) Score: 5 out of 7
Commercial Rating: OK

The Space Bag is a proven winner that has crossed over into DRTV Nirvana: a brand with a permanent place on store shelves. Very few products in DRTV history have achieved this (OxiClean, the Foreman Grill). But with that success comes the tendency to behave like a brand marketer instead of a DRTV marketer. Speaking from experience, this can lead to a lot of disappointment and conflict within an organization. Here's why:

DRTV marketers only care about ROI and immediate results. As a result, they love the hard sell and favor single SKUs retailers can stack high and blow out the doors.

Brand marketers don't share these concerns. They only care about image and expanding their space on store shelves. As a result, they love softer advertising and brand extensions. Go grocery shopping and you will see what brand marketers have wrought. In every aisle, in every category, there are so many choices you get a headache just trying to decide what to put in your cart.

What happens when these two types of marketing collide? You get soft DRTV ads that try to support a wide array of SKUs -- or exactly what we are starting to see here.

On the one hand, I like the product a lot. It solves a problem in life (the stress and strain of cramming clothes into suitcases)  and it solves a problem with the original product. No more vacuums, just roll or press. (On a side note, the secondary problem of "baggage fees" isn't really solved by this product. Yes, airlines charge for additional bags these days. But they also charge for overweight bags. So unless these Space Bags come with helium in them, you're still going to get charged if you cram two suitcases of clothes into one suitcase. Trust me, I know.)

On the other hand, the Space Bag concept isn't as new or exciting as it once was, two things critical for impulse purchasing, and travel isn't as "every day" as storing cloths, blankets, etc.

From a DRTV perspective, the commercial also has several flaws that were no doubt created by the brand/DRTV tension I mentioned earlier. Specifically, it soft pedals two promising "magic demos" (the canoe demo and the mud/car demo) instead of making them a centerpiece of the commercial, and it has a bewildering offer sure to leave prospects with a head full of sales-killing questions. (Do the eight main bags roll or push down? Are both sizes meant for suitcases? What is a hanging bag, and how does it work? Etc.)

Bottom line: The Space Bag people have made meaningful improvements to their product, but they've tried to accomplish too much in their spot and, as a result, shouldn't expect good DRTV results. Then again, any ROI is good when you're supporting an established brand that's everywhere at retail, and those DRTV media rates don't hurt, either.

May 26, 2009

Review: Brew In 2

Description: Coffeemaker that brews in two minutes
Main Pitch: "The single-serve coffeemaker that works right in your microwave"
Main Offer: One unit for $19.99, includes insulated travel mug
Bonus: Second unit and mug (just pay P&H)
Marketer: Cricket Holdings
Producer: Blue Moon Studios

Product (D7) Score: 5 out of 7
Commercial Rating: Good

This product is different and interesting, but the big question is whether it solves a real problem. I don't think it does. Consider the problems it is positioned against in the commercial:

  • Waiting on line for a $4 cup of coffee is crazy. Yet this doesn't seem to have stopped a Starbucks from opening in every city in America. And if the price bothers people, there's always Dunkin' Donuts -- and now McCafĂ©.
  • Most of the coffee in a fresh pot ends up going down the drain. Perhaps, but this is why there are single-serve coffeemakers available at every retailer.
  • Single-serve coffeemakers cost up to $80. True. But again, this doesn't seem to have stopped people from buying them. The category has exploded over the years.

A second, related challenge for this product is credibility. In this case, I mean the perception of quality. No matter how good the pitch, people will find it hard to believe quality coffee can come out of the microwave. That is, people who care about the quality of their coffee. Those who don't will drink instant coffee. And that's the real problem with this product. It's stuck in the mushy middle.

May 23, 2009

Unasked Questions

I just got back from the Response Expo in San Diego. Every year it gets better, as does the quality of the seminars and symposiums.

I especially enjoyed Dick Wechsler's symposium on integration. One reason was the speakers. Any time you get Dick, AJ Khubani, Ron Steblea from Allstar and Fred Vanore from Blue Moon Studios in one room, you're bound to learn something new. (Brian Fays from Viacom also gave a fascinating talk about his networks and media availability.) These are some of the brightest minds in DR today.

Naturally, there were a lot of people who wanted to know more, so I didn't have a chance to ask the panel my questions. If I had, I would have asked the following ...

1. "DRPR" seems to be an increasing trend. More and more, we see the CEOs of DRTV companies going on news and talk shows to promote their products. AJ demonstrated Ped Egg on The View. Scott Boilen went on Oprah to pitch Snuggie. And Bill McAlister did the circuit to promote Mighty Putty and Mighty Mendit.

Has anyone been able to measure the impact of these PR efforts on direct sales? (After all, our business is about measurability.) If not, does the Internet present an opportunity to invent this metric?

(For example, specific URLs could be promoted on these shows and trackable links could be used on companion Web sites. And here's an interesting idea: What if, in addition to an audience giveaway, these CEOs were to promote a viewer giveaway, say $5 off for visiting a special site?)

2. The DRTV media environment is very challenging right now. (See Dick's excellent guest post for why.) Inevitably, that means more DRTV companies will be running campaigns at a loss to support retail.

Has anyone developed a reliable way of measuring and managing negative ROI media spending against retail sales? (I have, but I'm curious to compare notes.)

3. Lastly, a related question: Is the correlation between hot on DRTV and hot at retail as strong as it used to be? Or are we seeing more examples of products succeeding on DRTV only to do mediocre at retail, and vice-versa? If so, how are you mitigating the associated risks? Please cite examples if you can.

Since the panel is over, I'd like to see what my readers think. Post your answers here and, if I get enough responses, I'll follow up with a second post recapping your comments. You can always post anonymously if you prefer.

May 22, 2009

My 15 Minutes

Actually, it was more like five minutes. However, my name has been spoken and my face shown on national cable television, so I'm not complaining. It was during the latest episode of Pitchmen ("Tool Guys," Episode Six).

I don't have a speaking part. Instead, I play a still photo described as the DRTV consultant who brought Billy Mays in on Alden's Grabit project (true story). I think this was the best episode yet and will be hard to beat, but I may be biased.

By the way, since the Grabit commercial is no longer available online, I'm including it below. I think it came out great, but America apparently did not agree.

(You can buy Grabit, and prove America wrong, here.)

The Best Infomercial Of All Time

One of my pet projects, Slim Clip, was recently named the "Best Infomercial Of All Time."

OK, the award might have been presented online by Dan Hopper from the "Best Week Ever" blog (related to the VH1 show). And he may have ended the award's title with a question mark. But that doesn't mean it isn't awesome!

Congratulations to John Miller, who created the commercial Hopper loves so much, and Mike Lakhiani, who came up with the idea for the product and believed in it when others didn't.

We'd like to thank the Academy, our agents, our moms and dads ...

May 17, 2009

Ped Egg, Smooth Away on Mike and Juliet

Both Telebrands' Ped Egg and IdeaVillage's Smooth Away got some press recently when they were reviewed on The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet. The segment was titled, "Real Deal or Ripoff?"

The Ped Egg got a rave review from the guest spa "expert," Smooth Away got a mixed revew. The full segment is available here. Below is just the Ped Egg portion, which features AJ Khubani performing live demonstrations from the commercial.

May 15, 2009

Thoughts on "Pitchmen," Episode Five

I only have one comment on this episode as I chose to write a separate review for the Heel Stick and the Spot/Stain Sucker is not yet ready to be critiqued. (That said, I like the Spot Sucker concept and can't wait to see how the final version comes out).

Again, I am putting aside my thoughts on the entertainment aspects of the show and focusing only on the things that got my attention as a DRTV marketer. With that in mind, the one thing that jumped out at me was a comment Sully made when evaluating the Heel Stick. He said something like, "The mani/pedi industry is a multi billion-dollar one. If we can just capture one percent of it ..."

This caught my attention because I've heard variations of it so often in the conference rooms of DRTV companies. It's often played like a trump card. An item is about to be killed because it doesn't really meet the criteria for DRTV. Then the person in love with the item pulls out the ol' "1% of a billion" argument, and the project survives.

The problem with this logic, which seems sound at first, is that it gives marketers a false sense of security. It leads them to believe failure is highly unlikely in large, well-established categories when in fact the opposite may be true. Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen explained it well in a January 2007 article about the hype surrounding the launch of the iPhone:

Analysts are drooling at the prospect of Apple entering the [cell phone] market because the numbers look so big. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that the 70 million iPods Apple has sold in the past five years ‘pale in comparison with the nearly one billion cell phones manufacturers are expected to ship this year. Even if Apple captures only a small share of that business, it could represent a revenue bump.’

There are always good reasons to be careful of a strategy that equates success with grabbing a small piece of a huge market. Although it is easy to imagine how the numbers could look good, success can elude even the savviest of companies in such large, highly-competitive markets.

DRTV companies are at an even greater disadvantage in this regard. That's because they don't have the giant ad budgets of a brand marketer like Apple, and most existing categories are already dominated by companies that do. That's why "must be unique" tops my list of criteria for DRTV products. Meaningful innovation is a DRTV marketer's only weapon because it cuts through the clutter and makes category dominance meaningless. As Jack Trout or Al Ries would say, the best strategy isn't to fight for dominance in an established category, it's to create a new category.

All of that said, a roll-on foot care product has a decent shot at creating a new category. So while I don't like the logic that may have launched it, I do like the item. See my Heel Stick review for more.

Review: Heel Stick

(Featured on Pitchmen, Episode Five)

Description: Roll-on foot balm
Main Pitch: "Roll away rough, dry skin"
Main Offer: $10 for a 1 oz stick
Bonus: 2nd stick and 10-piece grooming kit (just pay separate S&H)
Marketer: Telebrands
Producer: Sullivan Productions

Product (D7) Score: 6 out of 7
Commercial Rating: Good

There's a lot to like about this product. It's in a hot category, and it solves a mass-market problem -- as evidenced by the monster success of Telebrands' Ped Egg and Ontel's Miracle Foot Repair before that. It also comes in a unique form (roll on) that will help it stand out from the dozens of other foot balms on the market.

That last part is critical. In the episode of Pitchmen that focuses on this item, the viewer is left with the impression that this item was selected because it "really works" while other products on the market do not. But whether that's true or not, it's irrelevant from a DRTV marketing perspective. People simply do not buy "better than" products off TV. They buy products with a strong point of difference from what's already on the market.

In other words, without the roll-on delivery method, this item wouldn't have a chance. With it, I think it has a decent shot -- provided the market for this kind of solution hasn't already been over-mined.

This is an interesting problem I've encountered often. When a product enters a category and dominates it as thoroughly as Ped Egg, there is a higher-than-average chance that even a distinct and exciting new entrant to the category won't get a fair shot. A foot file and a foot balm are vastly different items, but they both solve the same problem. It just may be that people with this problem have found their ultimate solution (Ped Egg) and aren't interested in trying something new. Then again, maybe people will view these items as complementary and buy them both. (Free marketing slogan: "Grate it, then hydrate it!")

As for the commercial, it has a first-rate problem opening, great testimonials and solid B&As. My only criticisms are minor. One, the spot focuses too much on cracked heels, a narrow problem, and waits a bit too long to talk about other problem areas (elbows, knees, etc.) Two, there's a speed bump in the offer. Once the offer is initiated, I like it to build inexorably until the order screen comes up. This spot presents the offer then cuts away to a testimonial, which I think is disruptive to the "call to action" process.

Joseph Sugarman once described this as The Slippery Slide. He was talking about print ads, but it's a great analogy for how a spot should flow as well.

The Slippery Slide

DR Master Joseph Sugarman once used the analogy of a "slippery slide" to describe how good advertising copy should flow. I always remember that analogy and try to apply it to every advertisement I work on. Below is his original description, an excerpt from his book, Advertising Secrets of the Written Word:

Picture a steep slide at a playground. Now picture somebody putting baby oil or grease along the entire length of the slide including the side rails. Picture yourself now climbing up the ladder, sitting at the top of the slide and then letting gravity force you down the slide.

As you start to slide down and build momentum, you try holding on to the sides to stop, but you can't stop. You continue to slide down the slide despite all your efforts to prevent your descent. This is the way your copy must flow.

Every element in an advertisement must cause that slippery slide effect. The headline must be so powerful and compelling that you must read the subheadline, and the subheadline must be so powerful that you are compelled to read the first sentence, and the first sentence must be so easy to read and so compelling that you must read the next sentence and so on, straight through the entire copy to the end.
This advice is just as valid when applied to a commercial, with the "problem opening" filling in for the headline and the product demonstrations representing the body copy and so on, each one so compelling you must continue watching all the way to the blue screen.

May 13, 2009

What's Up With DRTV Media

The biggest concern in the industry right now, the one topic that's on every client's mind, is what's happening with short-form DRTV media. In late 2008, everyone believed 2009 was going to be the biggest year in DRTV history -- and January indeed started with a bang. But then things started falling apart. These days, more than one industry leader has expressed concerns to me that we might be in for a long summer.

Whenever I have questions about the media environment, the first person I turn to is Dick Wechsler, president of Lockard & Wechsler Direct. If there were such thing as a PhD in DR media, Dick would be known as "Dr. Wechsler." As busy as he is running a successful agency, Dick was kind enough to write the guest post below, which explains what's happening and what we can expect. Dick writes:

Few factors affect the health of the DRTV business more than available and affordable television inventory. With the world mired in a deep recession, one would expect television inventory to be widely available at fire sale rates. That isn’t the case. In fact, the market for DRTV inventory, particularly two-minute avails, is extremely tight.

Putting emotional frustrations aside, there are real factors shaping the current media environment. There’s a good chance we’ll be contending with these factors for some time to come.

1. There is a real reduction in the number of commercial minutes available. There were 15% fewer commercial minutes in January 2009 than in January 2008. There were 10% fewer commercial minutes in February 2009 than in February 2008. This contraction places significant pressure on inventory that would normally be available to DRTV advertisers.

2. The 2009 Cable Upfront Market, which follows a calendar year, was the strongest in history. Upfront contracts are inflexible in the first quarter of the deals. The strength of the Cable Upfront explains why 1Q was surprisingly tight for DRTV despite the economic downturn.  In fact, the progressive growth of the Cable Upfront market over the past three to five years is largely responsible for the tightening of the 1Q DRTV market over that same period.

3. Poor economic conditions did prompt many Upfront advertisers to release inventory back into the market as is permitted under their contracts. However, much of this inventory never found its way to the DRTV scatter market. Why? Because the advertisers who released it were allowed by the cable networks to purchase it back at lower rates than they had negotiated in the Upfronts. These buys are taking place week to week, creating a very volatile market.

4. Going forward, we expect the Upfront Market to weaken and the Scatter Market to strengthen creating even greater inventory and pricing volatility.

5. DRTV is a leading indicator of the economy. Inventory began to open up in 2Q 2008 and response rates were strong. The economy began to unravel in 3Q. We’ve experienced a progressive tightening of inventory since January of this year and a corresponding weakening of response rates.

So, going forward, expect the DRTV media market to be choppy. Despite growing unemployment and a weak economy, very real factors have affected the television marketplace and the opportunities one would expect to be available to DRTV advertisers.

May 11, 2009

Review: Mighty Blast

Description: Foaming carpet cleaner
Main Pitch: "Lets you blast away stains from up to six feet away"
Main Offer: $19.99 for one 15-oz can
Bonus: Triple the offer plus a Micro Fiber Duster (just pay P&H)
Starring: Taylor Baldwin
Marketer: Plymouth Direct
Producer: Hutton-Miller (formerly Miller Direct)

Product (D7) Score: 5 out of 7
Commercial Rating: Good

Note: This post has been updated to include missing information and correct unintentional inaccuracies.

This is the fourth product to air on DRTV under the "Mighty" name after Mighty Putty, Mighty Mendit and Mighty Shine. Interestingly, it has the same weaknesses as the other Mighty products. First, it's not unique in the sense of being totally different from what's already on the market. Like epoxy and liquid bonding agents, foaming carpet stain removers already sell in stores. Second, it pushes the credibility envelope once again. Because of their experiences with similar products, people will have trouble believing that this product will instantly remove stains from "six feet away." It's really a Catch 22. When a product isn't unique, it needs to be different and better by a lot. But in trying to stand out and achieve that standard, it often ends up straining credibility.

Then again, this dilemma didn't seem to slow down Mighty Putty or Mighty Mendit very much. I think a big reason was the combined creative genius of the Plymouth marketing team, Hutton-Miller and Billy Mays. Together, they came up with a killer pitch and those great "wow" demos -- stunts, really -- that few will soon forget (pulling a tractor trailer with Mighty Putty, repairing a torn parachute with Mighty Mendit). This commercial does not feature Billy Mays and departs from the style of the commercials that featured him. While the spot does have some well-conceived demos, the impact of those demos is blunted by the fact that B-roll is favored over having the spokesperson perform the demos right before your eyes. When credibility is a potential issue, such "live" demos are critical.

That's not to say the commercial isn't well done otherwise, and the offer is as big and compelling as I've come to expect from this marketing team. In fact, my biggest concern isn't about the product or commercial at all: It's about the name. As I've mentioned before, brand extensions seem to have a higher-than-average failure rate, even when the product itself meets all the criteria for success. I feel so strongly about this that I often refer to it as the "curse of the brand extension" and advise my clients to avoid saddling their products with the burden of a successful name (irony intended).

The huge success of Mighty Mendit caused me to think twice about this, but so far it seems to be an exception to an otherwise sound rule (Mighty Shine does not appear to be joining it). The evidence on the other side (One Touch, Vidalia, Debbie Meyer) is compelling. But who knows? Maybe this product will help break the curse once and for all.

Thoughts on "Pitchmen," Episode Four

I'm a little bit late with this post because I caught the episode in pieces, and I wanted to wait until I'd seen the whole thing. Once again, I found the show to be interesting and entertaining, but I'll focus on the marketing since that's my area of expertise.

I don't have much to say about What Odor that I didn't already say in my previous review. In that review, I talked about "the difficulty of proving odor elimination on TV," which Billy and Sully also identified right away when presented with the item. They ultimately went with that "green fog" animation I see often in spots (and don't like) and that entertaining skunk demo, which I thought was inspired but didn't play well in the actual spot.

What I found most interesting, however, was the idea Billy came up with for focus testing the product: deodorizing an entire hockey team's sweaty gear. What a great idea. That segment of the show also captured the natural reactions of the players -- amazement and praise for the product. Edited for the spot, it would have nailed two of the Tried & True DRTV Techniques at once: featuring a "magic" demo and establishing credibility with testimonials.

As for the other products featured on the show, I don't have much to add. I loved the Aussie Vertical Grill as much as the guys did, and it was sad to see it get back-burnered because of cost. Unfortunately, that's what happens sometimes. There's a price barrier for both short-form and long-form DRTV, and marketers violate it at their own peril. To paraphrase Al Ries again: You can live by the rules and miss an opportunity on occasion, or you can live a life of chaos (and poverty).

Not much to say about the Genius Frying Dome, either. I don't have experience with long-form cooking products.

May 07, 2009

Review: Neckline Slimmer

Description: Small exercise device that tightens neck and face muscles for a slimmer neckline
Main Pitch: "Firm, lift and smooth your neckline ... in just two minutes a day"
Main Offer: $19.99 for one unit with three resistance springs
Bonuses: Carrying bag, training DVD and Firming Accelerator cream (just pay P&H)
Starring: Michelle Edmonds
Marketer: SAS Group
Producer: Hutton-Miller (formerly Miller Direct)
Product (D7) Score: 7 out of 7!
Commercial Rating: Good/Excellent

This item is weird to watch in action -- but then you get over it and start to realize that it's a truly brilliant idea, especially from a DRTV perspective. Not only does it meet all seven criteria for a good DRTV item, it nails the "unique" and "problem solver" criteria like few items do.

One line from the commercial perfectly encapsulates the genius of this idea:

"It does for your neckline what exercise does for your body."

Why didn't someone think of that before?! For all these years, people have been suffering from the "turkey neck" problem (as a famous FedEx commercial put it) and thinking there was no solution to their problem (except, of course, losing a lot of weight). Then some brilliant individual thought of taking the same approach DRTV marketers have been taking to abs, thighs and buns for decades and applying it to the neckline.

Does it work? Is it possible to "use progressive resistance to tighten the underlying muscles of the neck," as physiotherapist Paul Younane claims in the spot? Who knows? But at $19.99, a lot of people will buy this to find out.

As for the commercial, it's very well done. The commercial is beautifully shot, the before-and-after photos are compelling and the offer is well thought out and strong. The only thing missing is a solid guarantee. Guarantees have fallen out of vogue for some reason, and in many cases they aren't necessary. But I think beauty products should always have a guarantee because women have tried so many new products with big promises that have disappointed them. Besides, the Firming Accelerator cream is a stand-alone item that's perfect for a "keep the bonus" guarantee.

On a side note, I almost faulted this spot for taking too long to get to the product. It's front-loaded with promises and end results. Then I realized the reason for the delay: That weirdness problem I mentioned earlier. Waiting was the right move. Better to get people hooked on the promise before seeing that odd-at-first product demonstration.