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One of my biggest marketing successes was a failure

ComdexComdex in two weeks? No booth or displays? Oy vey.

I started work at Frecom Communications just before we went to Comdex, which was then the largest trade show for the microcomputer industry. Frecom made some of the first low-cost fax/modems, which people used to communicate with bulletin boards and AOL before the Internet showed up.

Comdex was a big show – it drew over 100,000 people in those days. It was a real zoo, spread over several convention centers. Sheer numbers made everything difficult, but also posed a real opportunity – if you were ready.

Of course, we weren’t. But we had a great image on on product box – company President Paul Masters, one of those bow-tie-types, lying on red velvet holding the product. Tag line was something like “this is as cheap as it gets.”

That was a great and memorable image, but the branding was all wrong. People don’t want cheap, they want good (and by the way, better make it cheap). So we changed the tag to “This is as good as fax/modems get.”

Frecom Fax Modems

Next thing: what do we have to offer at the show? Nothing. OK, I get it. No new products, no marketing collateral, gotta make something up really fast.

Well, we did have something. That product image with Paul was something everyone loved. And I had an idea for getting people into our booth.

First task: make a giant blowup of the product packaging. Mount it on foam. Cut out Paul’s head. Get a Polaroid (this was before digital cameras, folks). Take pictures of our product box with the attendee sticking his/her head through the hole.

You may think this was hokey, but we always had lines of people waiting to get their pictures taken.

Next: popcorn. Everyone loves popcorn at trade shows – well, everyone except the people working in surrounding booths. It makes a mess. The smell permeates everything. But we gave away a LOT of popcorn. $5,000 of popcorn, to be exact. I never even considered that it would cost more than a couple hundred dollars. What a surprise.

So here’s the good news. We were mobbed throughout the show.

And here’s the bad news. We had nothing to sell except our old product. We missed an incredible chance to get a new, improved message out. But we did start rebranding the product as a quality product, rather than as a cheap product. (In fact, using some clever pricing techniques, we were perceived in the big-box stores as the lowest-cost fax modem, event though our chief competitor sold for less!)

It’s not like we didn’t get any benefit. People got to see the new tag line, which had traction. People who didn’t know about our existing product line got a chance to learn about us. But as I recall, we didn’t get any orders.

Having said that, over the next three months, we quadrupled sales! Well, that good news came with bad news as well. In case you didn’t know it (I sure didn’t), in a manufacturing company, the more you sell the more funding you need. You see, you have to pay for parts and manufacturing in cash (if your credit isn’t good), and you sell to big box stores on 30 day terms (which means you get paid in 90 days). Our sales success put us out of business.

In retrospect, I might have done things a little differently…

Posted in Back in the day, Marketing.

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2 Responses

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  1. Dave Chambers says

    In retrospect, all of us at Frecom could have done things a little differently…

  2. Walter Feigenson says

    Wow! There’s a voice from the past! Thanks for the comment Dave.