Magazine article Marketing

Too Clever by Half?

Magazine article Marketing

Too Clever by Half?

Article excerpt

"Have you sold any yet?" "I've got three customers who are very interested." "Yeah, but have you sold any?" "Nah."

This exchange between two salesmen at the Kingston John Lewis department store on a sunny Saturday afternoon last month suggests that Simon Turner has a job on his hands. Turner is the man who helped bring the compact disc to a dubious British public. Ten years later, as marketing director of Philips Interactive Media Systems, he is charged with selling that product's hi-tech spin-off, the compact disc-interactive (CD-I).

John Lewis Kingston is one of only 50 stores in and around London that is currently selling the Philips CD-I player. Demonstrations there of the sleek black box, which turns TV viewing from a passive to an active experience, certainly pull in the crowds. But so far few people are reaching for their wallets and spending 600 [pounds] to be an ex-couch potato.

Of course it is early days yet. But the salesmen's exchange is a timely reminder that the product hailed as the biggest thing since the first television set hit the market in 1929 cannot take success for granted. And Turner knows that for all his emphasis on the long term the next nine months are crucial to the CD-I's future.

In nine months' time the main Christmas selling season for brown goods will be over. If CD-I fails to make a mark by then people will start placing it alongside other great Philips non-starters such as LaserVision and Video 2000.


Turner maintains that CD-I is on course to replicate the sales curve of the compact disc- which he says was far from vertical in the early days. "The truth is there's a more positive feeling about CD-I now than there was at the equivalent stage in CD's launch."

Granted, in 1982 Philips saw its job as simply bringing the CD players to market. It was at the mercy of record companies which gave the new format less than 100% support. The number of titles available actually decreased from' 90 to 50 in the first few months of its launch as cautious record companies refused to press more discs until the format proved it had legs.

Now Philips is a very different company with fingers in software pies from the record company Polygram to the video retailer Blockbuster. Philips has even set up its own software company, American Interactive Media, to produce titles for CD-I. "This time we're leading the marketplace in both hardware and software," says Turner.

But software alone cannot guarantee success. Audio compact disc was an easy concept to explain. Interactive multi media is not. Try applying the sentence challenge to both: that is, describe what the product is in one simple sentence. With CD that might be "LPs without the snap, crackle and pop." The best Philips has managed for CD-I is" a new CD-based home entertainment system for the 90s combining CD-quality audio with video, text, animation, graphics all under the viewer's interactive control". Quite a mouthful.

Mark Lewis is managing director of the European division of Electronic Arts (EA), the world's biggest entertainment software company. If CD-I is to succeed it has to win over companies like EA. But so far Lewis has serious doubts about whether Philips can translate the complexity of CD-I into something an ordinary consumer understands - and, more importantly, wants to buy.

"We're incredibly nervous about CD-I because we know what an education process it is to convince consumers about something so incredibly new to them," he says. "I mean what do you say? 'Here's a black box, it goes in your living room. It does all these wonderful things: you can learn French, go on a walking tour of Florence, or even see the words to I Can't Get No Satisfaction flash up on the TV while you listen." He says that despite Philips'"valiant efforts", CD-I has yet to establish its credentials as a mass market platform for EA's programmes. …

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