Trade Shows, My Mother, and Generational Cycles; Ideas About Your Customer

Okay, I’m back from Agenda and Surf Expo. I feel bad I didn’t go to the Zumiez 100K event even though it’s not, exactly, a trade show.  I’ll make it to Denver for SIA, but am not going to OR, though I should. They wanted me to pay to get in, but in the best industry tradition, I found a company already attending that would get me a badge.

Still, I just decided there wasn’t time. I had some god awful viral infection that lasted from Christmas Eve to sometime at Agenda and I’ve got clients that won’t pay me unless I do some stuff for them.

Unfortunately, I’ve never found a client who will pay me for doing nothing. Oh well.

I made a presentation at Surf Expo, and will make a related one at SIA, that actually related my mother to generational cycles and am going to try my hardest to relate that to trade shows. I think I can do it by talking about what drives long term buying habits, something we should all be interested in.

But first, my favorite booth at either trade show was Official Skate at Agenda. Don’t get too excited guys. It was the live llama in the booth that got my attention at first. I got to pet it and talk to it and everything! And I didn’t have to clean up after it. Guess I shouldn’t be talking to llamas.

I love animals. I think I spent more time in that booth than in any other booth except Billabong at Surf Expo, where Jason Shelton and Mark Weber were kind enough to walk me through the line and talk strategy with me. I like what they are doing with board shorts as a microcosm of the whole product line and the brand positioning, though I guess they’d prefer I not lay out their entire strategy right here.

Another booth that intrigued me was one that offered an action cam that was going to sell, I think, at retail with accessories for $100.00. They claimed it was designed and not off the shelf. As to how it compares to GoPro, I don’t know. I am embarrassed to say I lost their brochure and don’t remember the company’s name. You guys should have had a llama.

Wait, I figured it out- but only because they sent me a follow up email.  The company is ViDi, and here’s their web site.  Check out their camera and what it comes with.

On a related note, I ran into my friend and former longtime Mervin sales manager Greg Hughes selling accessories for GoPro cameras and iPhones at SP-united. I was particularly interested in the case you could put an iPhone in and then attach it to GoPro accessories.

Consumer electronics products have always, eventually, become a commodity. GoPro is betting their software for creating, editing, and managing content will allow them to build a community that’s loyal to their hardware product. I think they can, and I’m an admirer of what they’ve accomplished. But I have the same old question- while I think they can do it, I don’t know if they can do it well enough to get the growth they need as a public company without jeopardizing the brand positioning. Regular readers know I think this problem is by no means unique to GoPro.

The core skate market got into trouble when cheaper product means the market would no longer accept high retail prices which provided the gross profit for the brands to support their teams and other marketing expenses. It wasn’t necessarily that the customer wouldn’t have preferred a branded deck, but the difference in price just got too great to ignore.

We’ll see if GoPro can avoid the same problem as less expensive, full featured cameras inevitably appear.

My mother comes into this as I consider the purpose and relevance of trade shows. Please give me a little time to build my argument here. I promise I (probably) haven’t completely lost it.

I can hear my mom now (partly because she’s still alive and saying this stuff):

That’s too expensive.

  • We don’t need another one.
  • Do you really need a new one?
  • We can fix that.

The last one is my favorite because when she said that, she was usually speaking when my dad was around and we all knew she meant he could fix it. This is perfectly clear to me now that I am a husband of some years’ experience.

To be clear, my mom didn’t have to be like this. She has plenty of money, if not much to spend it on at this point. But she had plenty of money back then too and she still wouldn’t spend it.

You see, my mom grew up on a farm in Little Rock, Arkansas during the 1930s, and the habits of thrift and frugality she learned living through the Great Depression and the Second World War have stuck with her. Truth be known, they’ve kind of rubbed off on her kids.

As described in The Fourth Turning, a book I’ve mentioned before and will probably keep mentioning, our last crisis as a country was the Great Depression and World War II. In 500 years of Western history and in the entire history of the US, a crisis has always been followed by three periods of time called a high, an awakening and an unraveling before getting back to a new crisis. Then the cycle repeats. Published in 1996, The Fourth Turning said that by the middle of the 2000s, we’d be into our next crisis, as these cycles have always repeated themselves every 80 to 100 years.

And low and behold, along comes the Great Recession more or less on schedule. And the 77 million strong millennial generation (ages 18 to 29 more or less) gets wacked upside the head by it just as they are starting out.

They’ve got something north of $1.1 trillion in student loans that aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy. Average wages haven’t really risen in 13 years (I’m expecting that to change). Getting a full time job with benefits is tough. The baby boomers are working longer because they can’t afford to retire. They haven’t lived through the Great Depression, but the Millennials’ unemployment rate spiked to damn near the national average high during the Depression when the Great Recession hit.

Robotics is going to eliminate a lot of the jobs young people once started out in. This isn’t unlike the impact of tractors and other machinery on the farming sector in the 1930s. Go read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to learn what that felt like.

So like my mom’s generation, they are going to be conservative and cautious about spending and investing and they are not going to get over it, in case you’re waiting for that to happen. But, also like my mom’s generation, they are going to work together to solve a lot of big problems left to them by the baby boomers (sorry about that). They are entrepreneurial (they have to be) and don’t have much respect for or trust in existing institutions- like brands for example.

Neil Howe- one of the authors of The Fourth Turning- in his book Millennials: A Profile of the Next Great Generation put it like this.

“Young Boomers once transformed America’s inner world, creating new visions and values that dazzled the firmament. Today’s young Millennials are transforming America’s outer world, moving at lightning speed to build new institutions, communities and infrastructure that will actually realize the ideals of their parents and grandparents.”

I imagine you recognize that these people are a big chunk of our market, and I like to think that the part of the quote about creating new communities might have gotten your attention. We throw it around a lot as a marketing strategy, but it’s what’s actually happening.

Back at my college reunion a few years ago, one of the deans remarked that they are getting much larger returns at reunions from current classes than they ever did from ours. He speculated that it was because these groups have bonded and been able to stay in touch in ways classes of earlier decades never did.

And of course the Millennials have the internet and mobile devices supporting their change and their communities and their creation of new institutions. Speaking of new institutions, I hope you’ve all tried Uber.

They want what they want when they want it. They see less reason to be brand loyal (at least for very long) and they will be influenced by what their communities tell them-not by advertising. They will not spend their money frivolously.

I’m hoping you see why I’ve spent some time on generational relationships and 80-100 year cycles. Aside from the fact that I like this kind of stuff that is. It has produced a customer that’s going to act- is acting- differently than the customer you got used to and will continue to act that way. You have to be invited into their communities.

Does this actually have anything to do with trade show? I think so. You’re going to see a more rapid turnover of brands. Brands that succeed are going to grow more quickly and in broader distribution.   The specialty retailers you see at shows are going to be very good at joining and supporting the community that includes their customers and they are going to listen to what those customers say- not what the brands tell them.

More and more large retailers will be at shows because they have an increasing interest in identifying small, new brands they can grow with. Remember that doing a great job online and optimizing for mobile is a necessity but it costs the same whether you have one store or 600. Because of the advantage in customer service and inventory management that provides, it’s a big advantage for multi-store retailers.

If I ran a trade show, I’d be trying to identify communities that include our customers and inviting their leaders to the show. If they have identifiable leaders. I need to think some about what it means to do that.

I guess if I have to conclude something about trade shows, it’s that it’s becoming dysfunctional to go to them and just talk to each other, though I do enjoy it. Their purpose has to change because the values and perspective of the customers we serve has changed.

Maybe what I’m beginning to believe is that the relationship between the two sets of institutions represented by the brands and the retailers is less important than it used to be because there is emerging a new set of institutions- the communities- interest groups if you will- being created by and representing the Millennials. That may also be true because of brands becoming retailers and retailers becoming brands.

Maybe these new communities are too fluid to identify and work with. But if not I can imagine building a working relationship that has some similarities to that between retailers and brands currently.



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