A 20-year take

While we’re casting our plans for next year, my pals and I have been poking through our photo albums and files. We’ve been talking about the good ol’ days. We noticed that the current year, 2017, marks the 20-year anniversary of some marketing successes. Those were, as the saying goes, “hard-earned.” We were promoting our Saipan-based tours in Asian markets.

Twenty years is a long time. How much has changed over the years? I’ll offer some random observations.

I’ll admit that certain realms of technology have certainly changed things. For example, two decades ago most of us couldn’t envision that customers would, someday, be researching, booking, and paying for their vacations via portable telephones.

I won’t belabor how much Saipan has or has not changed. That’s too subjective of a call for me to make. But I will note that on Saipan, or anywhere else, what seems like change on the surface can actually be the result of very consistent behavior beneath the surface.

Anyway, back to the marketing thing. Overall, I don’t think that the fundamentals have changed much, at least in the industries that I deal with.

As for the tourism industry in specific, penetrating Asian markets from the shores of Saipan is no small challenge. Some of the challenges are obvious, even as an exercise in armchair abstraction. We all know that we’re up against addressing markets that are distant and different in terms of geography, culture, and language.

But one element that’s not so obvious from the outside is the structure of tourism and its components. Tourism, and the marketing of tourism, often involves various tie-ups and alliances within the industry. The Asian industry is often vertically- and horizontally integrated. This structure is different than what you’ll typically encounter in the U.S. Jibing the difference isn’t rocket science, but it involves putting down your own preferences and judgments in order to understand the market on its own terms.

That is easier said than done, and not just in the tourism realm but in any realm. Identifying your target market and then figuring out what drives its purchasing behavior is one of the business world’s greatest challenges.

Meeting that challenge is a high-stakes game. Some of the shrewdest economic studies I’ve seen have come from the internal papers of large ad agencies. I have one such analysis for a brand of soda pop and it would put most microeconomic texts to shame.

Although large companies can, of course, hire such analytical muscle, and likewise fund various focus groups, surveys, and statistical research, smaller firms often have to rely on anecdotal evidence to puzzle things out.

There’s nothing wrong with anecdotal evidence. If you have a reasonably analytical mind and know how to talk to people (both at the street level and the office level), you can really take the pulse of the market.

And there is always grunt work to be done, some of it quite lonely. I used to work for a millionaire who would stand on street corners with a little clicker in his hand. He’d count the number of people who were walking by potential retail locations. You can guess who inherited that job. For this, I went to college.

One thing I like about marketing is that it never rests. The market is always moving and the competition is always moving. Sometimes the big players, like senile dinosaurs, start to rot on their very feet, while smaller and more nimble players come along and claim the action. You’ll probably be reading about this in next year’s business news when some legacy U.S. retailers go extinct.

Anyway, when it comes to the smaller scale of business, where anecdotal evidence is all you’ve got, I’ve noted that the successful operators tend to be people who are comfortable relating to other people. By contrast, some people, many of them very intelligent and highly educated, simply can’t resonate with how other people feel and think.

That’s always been the case, of course. But in the modern era, when you can go your entire life swaddled in an electronic cocoon, the supply of healthy empathy is probably on the wane.

As for my supply of random observations, well, I’ve forked over all I’ve got today. I’ll wrap things up on sort of an old-man note that heeds a 20-year retrospective, even though it’s cliché: Those years went by really fast. I’m glad that I’ve always done work that I liked to do because, in the blink of an eye, it wound up being life itself.

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Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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