Managing Director at Steelside
25 October 2000 15:00pm
Some of you may have read about the recent folding of the Sotheby's/Amazon joint venture, after about 15 months of poor performance. The site was named www.sothebys.amazon.com and was geared towards the online auction of “sports memorabilia, coins, and other collectibles”.
I suppose the owners think it was obvious that fine art and rare antiques would be kept on the sothebys.com site and that Amazon’s own auction site would feature “more mundane offerings” such as "Beanie Babies and Pokemon cards" placed up for auction by users.
As an aside: At the moment, the sothebys.amazon url defaults to the amazon.com site and features a collection of Lone Ranger memorabilia, on auction. A few examples: Clayton Moore’s (the actor who played the masked hero) original Stetson for a paltry $3000. Or how about his baby blue “personal appearance outfit”? (In the 50’s there were no porta-showers on TV production sets so a one-piece cowboy suit must have been pretty steamy by the end of day’s filming in the California sun –think of that before you enter the bidding at $3,500). Not surprisingly, with 5 days till auction, no bids have been received for either of these. The “killer” item is of course the Ranger’s black mask – going for $30,000. Think on that for a second: 30k for a crusty old piece of satin which, according to a recent article, is so well worn that it conforms “exactly to the actor's facial structure”.
My point is not to denigrate the quality of the merchandise. There have been far more obscure items auctioned in the past and I’m sure Lone Ranger’s personal effects have sentimental meaning to a wide range of baby-boomers whose playground activities were filled with “hi-ho silver!” and “put your ear to the ground and you will hear the horses, Kemosabe”.
The point of my contribution here, is to question how this site was ever given the go-ahead in the first place. When the venture was put to rest last month, the company quoted “customer confusion” as the main reason for its failure. Why did it take over 18 months of considerable work and investment to come to this conclusion? I guess the decision-making went something like this…
“Well, to the consumer, amazon.com means selling stuff online; Sotheby’s means auctioning high ticket art, antiques and memorabilia. Put the two together and you get sothebys.amazon.com, which means auctioning stuff online…right?”
Makes sense, non? No. Not to the consumer.
As a disciple of the renowned marketing/positioning gurus Jack Trout and Al Ries (no matter what industry you’re in, read their book: Positioning - The Battle for your Mind) I am convinced that this site’s downfall would have been, sooner or later, its inability to define a position in the market. And launching a brand is all about positioning.
Own a position in consumer’s mind and you have the platform on which to build your business. In this hectic market place, one simple thing needs to come into a consumer’s mind when he/she sees your logo. Amazon.com means, to most people, selling books online, Sotheby’s means auctioning art and antiques. Those are the respective positions in the mind of the consumer. To simply mix the two together is never going to work.
Trout and Ries outline various positioning strategies. The most important of which is to being first (or pretty close to first). Amazon achieved this with their approach to online retailing, eBay did it for online auctions. Another important strategy is to remain focussed. Understand what you mean to consumers and don’t deviate from that. (Note Amazon’s recent announcement that they would cut back non-core areas of business after a couple of years of deviation from their main business.)
Positioning strategy for a digital property/interface can be distilled into the following basic points:
1 - Know what your site’s core position is – in the mind of the consumer.
2- Know who else competes for that position
3 - Know where you are in relation to that competition
4 - Unless you are no.1 or 2 look for a new position
In summary: I am sure there are a thousand other reasons why this site didn’t take off and I know little about either operations. My point is simply this: ceterus paribus (all things being “sorted”) www.sothebys.amazon.com would still have ended up strapped to the railway tracks with no Lone Ranger in sight. i.e: Take great fulfilment, great ad campaign, great products, great usability, great eCRM, great PC/web penetration, great bandwith as a given, and this proposition still would have failed. Why?
Because it lacked a position in the minds of the consumer….and without that you won’t ever compete.
[I know little about online selling and have approached this purely from a brand positioning point of view – something that should be considered in the new economy as much as in the old. I would appreciate any comments or feedback.]
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