Retail Hell

3 July 2017

Retails From The Crypt (or “What The Hell Happened To American Marketing?!”)

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Guy Who Will Miss Shopping In Stores; modified illustration from Weird Tales magazine 1941…

Deep inside the HQ of Rapacious Retail Inc. — an office so sterilized and bathed in artificial light that live plants wilt within seconds — we find the head of marketing —

Bob Boberts: Marketing Ninja.

Uh, OK, Marketing Ninja —

Bob: No, make that Marketing Visionary. Yes, that would look great in my Twitter bio…

Marketing Visionary Bob Boberts, a generic male exec in his 40’s who thinks his jeans and untucked button-down shirt make him look edgy. He’s meeting with his new assistant Kaitlyn Caitlin, a freshly minted college grad wearing thick Warby Parker eyeglass frames — partially because they look stylish, but mostly because they fit her budget. She’s taking notes on her iPad as he speaks.

Bob: What’s your name again?

Kaitlyn Caitlin: Kaitlyn Caitlin.

Bob: Too hard to remember. Mind if I call you KC?

Kaitlyn: Actually, I prefer—

Bob: KC it is then because [singing] that’s the way, uh huh, uh huh, I like it.

Kaitlyn stares at him blankly.

Bob: You Millennials are so out of touch. Speaking of which, we need to hit up more of you, and I mean “hit up” in a marketing sense, so don’t sue me for harassment… That said, given that we’re both healthy consenting adults here, I was wondering…

Kaitlyn: Don’t.

Bob: Got it. Now where was I? Ah, yes, we need to reach more Millennials.

Kaitlyn: Why? Rapacious Retail sells socks, which appeal to adults of all ages.

Bob: Oh, KC, you have so much to learn. Reaching out to Millennials is a best practice.

Kaitlyn: Because they buy more socks than anyone else?

Bob: Not really. But anyone who says the word “Millennials” in a press release gets more media coverage.

Kaitlyn: [aside] I should have gone to dental school.

Bob: So what I need you to do is shift our entire TV ad budget to shows that appeal to this 18-29 demo.

Kaitlyn: Uh, aren’t those TV demos just a sales trick? I read that ABC concocted the whole “younger viewers are better” scam 50 years ago just to sell more ads on “The Jetsons.”

Bob: That’s a problem.

Kaitlyn: I’m glad you agree! So we should aim for a broader reach —

Bob: No, your reading is a problem. Facts will just get in the way of your career, kiddo — and mine. So let’s just stick to whatever is trending on Twitter. If it’s not trending, it’s not something the investors want to hear. Capiche?

Kaitlyn: OK, I guess.

Bob: Good, you learn quick. Just remember, you went to college to get a diploma, but you came here to get an education!

Kaitlyn: And to think I just rang up $80,000 in student loan debt.

Bob: You should have done what I did – got admitted to college then dropped out to join my frat brother’s father’s company. Now where were we?

Kaitlyn: On the road to nowhere?

Bob: Ah, yes, Millennials. I also want you to train all our sales reps on how to use social media. All their phone calls and emails are so 20th Century — they should be tweeting and posting and live-streaming…

Kaitlyn: Uh, seriously? But study after study shows that organic social media marketing is a complete waste of time, and that email generates a much higher —

Bob: There you go again with reading. You’d feel so much happier if you just went with the flow. Just look at me!

Kaitlyn: [aside] Ignorance is bliss…

Bob: How much are we paying you anyway?

Kaitlyn: Well, I’ve been meaning to discuss that with you. I’m getting $27,000 a year…

Bob: Lucky you! that’s more than I got paid when I started out.

Kaitlyn: Wasn’t that, like, 25 years ago?

Bob: 20! Stop aging me.

Kaitlyn: And, well, I wasn’t expecting all the unpaid overtime, which effectively reduces my pay to less than minimum wage…

Bob: Team player?

Kaitlyn: What?

Bob: Are you or are you not?

Kaitlyn: A team player?

Bob: Yes or no?

Kaitlyn: Yes, I guess.

Bob: Then show some passion, KC. It’s all about passion! Now passionately use your Millennialness to help us sell more to Millennials.

Kaitlyn: But Mr. Boberts –

Bob: Just call me “Coach.”

Kaitlyn: Coach?

Bob: Team player?

Kaitlyn: OK… Coach. With all due respect, don’t you see the big issue here? We Millennials on average don’t mak much money, especially compared to people of your generation.

US Generation Financial Comparisons

Bob: Passion, KC. Passion!

Kaitlyn: And we have massive student loan debt. And exorbitant apartment rents. Plus cell phone and Internet bills, and almost no wealth or assets to speak of. Who knows when we’ll have any home equity, if ever? We also don’t have much credit. And most of us would rather spend money on travel than clothes. So if you really want to sell more socks, shouldn’t you target Gen X or Baby Boomers?

Bob: KC, KC, KC, don’t you see what the real problem is here?

Kaitlyn: Bad customer segmentation?

Bob: No, KC. You’re thinking in terms of product sales and profits. That’s so last century.

Kaitlyn: We’re not trying to sell socks?

Bob: Ha ha! That’s cute. No, kiddo, the goal of American marketers today is to speak on panels and give interviews to puff-piece publications while using as many buzzwords as possible, like “Millennials” and “Social Media” and “Authenticity,” which just might get you recruited by an overfunded startup, where you’ll never have to worry about making a profit again en route to cashing out your options when the company goes IPO. It’s the American Dream 2.0.

Kaitlyn: 2.OMG… But… but doesn’t that mean Rapacious Retail will go bankrupt?

Bob: So what? We’ll just blame the Internet and ecommerce, like all the other retailers do. Then we’ll buy a bunch of Instagram “likes” to make the brand look popular and sell the whole thing to a foreign millionaire who wants to move to L.A. Once that goes through, we senior execs and the original investors make even more money.

Kaitlyn: So where does that leave me and all the other workers?

Bob: Smarter than when you started here. And on that note, get busy. Tweet or Snap or something. I have a flight to catch to Cannes.

Bob leaves while humming KC and the Sunshine Band. Kaitlyn pulls out her phone and dials.

Kaitlyn: Hi, admissions office? Is it too late to apply to dental school?


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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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6 years ago

I just can’t understand why everyone wants to still market to millennials. All the millennials I know brag about how they buy all their clothes second hand and don’t have cars since they take Uber everywhere. They all go on trips and out to eat with the cash they have left over after paying their overpriced rent and college debt. Millennials do not have the same materialistic passion as Boomers. And none of them are on Facebook or Twitter anymore. Shall I go on? It is so baffling that marketers don’t get this. But, you are right. They don’t read anything to figure it out for themselves.

6 years ago

I think Bob has always been there, but it does seem that he is multiplying and becoming more visible, perhaps because of the increase in social media channels. One problem for the rest of us is cutting through the increase in ambient noise.

Also, to be entirely fair, the real responsibility lies with top management (and in many cases, the private equity owners) for lacking any vision and providing leadership, allowing Bobs to run around pissing away precious resources.