What is it about Harvard Business School professors and their embrace of the grindingly conventional pitched as fresh contrarianism? The latest is HBS marketing professor John Quelch, who bravely argues for, well, successful products: Long-Tail Economics? Give Me Blockbusters!
Unlike these HBS professors, I’m actually in the blockbuster industry (Conde Nast editor), and I can confirm that blockbusters are indeed great when you happen to have one. The problem is that neither we nor anyone else can predict what will be a blockbuster or how to create them with any regularity.
So we can’t do much to improve our blockbuster batting average. But what we can do is become less dependent on them. And that’s the point of the Long Tail.
But Quelch thinks we've got it all wrong. Forget spreading your bets and embracing niches. Instead, make blockbusters! Okay. How? Well, he doesn't quite get to that. Instead, Quelch helpfully identifies the "five defining characteristics of blockbusters", all coincidentally starting with "S": [My comments are in brackets]
- Sheer size. A blockbuster has a transformational impact on a company and an industry, often opening up new markets worldwide. Blockbusters break sales records and exceed expectations. Around 100 pharmaceutical brands exceed $1 billion in annual sales. Procter & Gamble has 23 such brands. [A bit of a tautology, which says blockbusters are, well, blockbusters, but let's move on...]
- Speed. It's not just the sales volume; it's the speed of the sales trajectory. Remember that the original blockbuster was a bomb that could destroy an entire city block. Blockbuster brands address pressing consumer needs so well that they often enjoy vertical sales liftoff. Think Viagra. [Huh? Did blockbuster bombs explode faster than other bombs? Can Viagra destroy an entire city block? I'm confused.]
- Scarcity. A blockbuster brand is often in such high demand that stock-outs and shortages occur in the market. Remember the consumer lines to buy the new iPhone? As imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the speedy availability of counterfeits is another indicator of popularity. [Except for all the blockbusters that don't exhibit this unusual scarcity behavior, such as Hollywood blockbusters, music blockbusters, drug blockbusters and indeed virtually all blockbusters except for the aforementioned iPhone and a few toys around Christmas. Also, isn't widespread piracy the opposite of scarcity?]
- Sustainability. A blockbuster brand is not a one hit wonder. It is a gift that keeps on giving. Remember Intel's Pentium chip. Or look at the seven Harry Potter books and five companion movies. Adding DVD and merchandise sales, theme parks, etc., Advertising Age valued the Potter economy at $15 billion. [Except for all the blockbusters that are one-hit wonders, from pop music to the aforementioned drugs. Furthermore, including Intel's Pentium chip in this list is risible: it was the fifth generation of a chip architecture that began with the first personal computers and grew along with the industry. It sold more than the processors before it and less than the processors after it. Does that make every component in a PC a blockbuster, simply because a lot of PCs are sold?]
- Sizzle. A blockbuster does not just address an important need. It does so in an exciting and accessible way. Pfizer's Lipitor was not the first cholesterol reducer but superior marketing and sales made Lipitor number one. And in the movie world, think of the magical and memorable special effects in the Star Wars series. [Comparing Lipitor to Star Wars special effects? Priceless. This is what it takes to become a Harvard Business School professor, folks]
It’s like the "Give Peace a Chance" bumper stickers on the old Volvos here in Berkeley. Good advice. If only it were so easy.
[thanks to Robin Koskinen for the tip]