The Consumer Republic




That’s Entertainment
For those who feel the word “brand” has become meaningless with overuse, along comes Michael Wolf with another buzzword for marketers to flog to death: the E-factor. That’s “E” for entertainment, which, according to Wolf, is now the indispensable ingredient in any marketing plan. He should know.
As the guy who built and runs Booz-Allen & Hamilton’s 200-consultant-strong entertainment group, Wolf has sat at the right hand of many a media god during the merger mania of the ’90s. He got into the business just as awareness was dawning “that the media and entertainment industries needed to begin to work like real businesses, while at the same time, traditional companies were just starting to recognize the criticality of entertainment to their business.” As they say in show biz, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
At times, I was unsure who Wolf’s book was targeting. Booz-Allen clients will be flattered by the many valentines that extol their sharp instincts and courageous visions. But if you already know that a brand needs a personality to be effective, that alpha consumers set the styles for the masses and that frogs and lizards can sell beer without talking about it, The Entertainment Economy won’t hold any revelations. I suspect these insights were fresher when the book was conceived; ideas have a shorter shelf life in the entertainment world.
Yet Wolf does provide a breezy survey of the many ways entertainment drives businesses, from apparel to travel to home furnishings. For those who’ve lost track of the media mergers and divestitures of the past five years, he offers an easy-to-understand guide of what happened and why. His account also explains that however much Murdoch and Turner shake their fists at each other in public, behemoths such as Time Warner, News Corp., Disney and Viacom actually operate more like a cartel than as competitors.
In the 21st century, all revenue growth will come from overseas; the number of eyeballs in China alone is enough to make a mogul weep for joy. But the cost of penetrating these markets is hefty; thus, the “competitors” have formed a Byzantine set of co-ventures, settling for smaller pieces of vast markets at reduced risks. No wonder Booz-Allen’s entertainment group is so busy.
As for the business model of the entertainment economy, forget about teams, feedback loops, worker empowerment and everything else you’ve read in Fast Company. An economy that ultimately lives or dies by the intangibles of talent, says Wolf, can only be mastered by a mogul with the right mixture of ego and instinct.
Wolf compares these men (they’re all men) to conquistadors vanquishing the New World–not a flattering metaphor. The figure that came to my mind was Julius Caesar: a bold risk taker who understood the power of bread and circuses. (Indeed, a society driven by entertainment is not as unprecedented as Wolf thinks. The Roman Empire might be called the Entertainment State.)
Like many big ideas, Wolf’s notion of entertainment is so big it threatens to become unintelligible. Surely to classify Viagra as entertainment is a stretch. Wolf claims that entertainment will drive the Internet, which is both true and obvious, but snap and sizzle are secondary draws at best. While he praises entertainment-rich Web sites, such as Gap and Pepsi World, both chock-full of downloadable goodies, these sites could disappear tomorrow and be mourned only by their brand managers.
The most compelling entertainment on the Net is being created by users for themselves–in chat rooms, auctions, cybertrading sites and the like. It’s not the entertainers but the enablers–AOL, Yahoo!, eBay, Amazon.com, Priceline.com–that are driving the Internet’s growth.
Now that AOL and Amazon have established names, they want to be the next Disney. But then, according to Wolf, so does every other company in America. Yet when it comes to Disneyhood, many are called but few are chosen.
Clearly, entertainment is a tough business and getting tougher. Compared to a lot of industries, its profit margins aren’t so hot. Its business model guarantees that failures will far exceed successes. As it expands into more arenas, it exerts more pressure on a finite resource: creative talent. The life span of an entertainment product can be brief; the public’s taste is a moving target. The same entertainment style that makes you a hit one year can sink you the next. This capricious industry is driven by hits, which inevitably means some very costly mistakes.
Wolf tellingly compares the entertainment business with the pharmaceutical industry, where millions are spent on drugs that never reach the marketplace. That this risk-and-failure ratio will become the norm in American business is a sobering thought.
But that’s entertainment.