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Published: August 28, 2006

 
 

The Case for Long Shots

The Defensive Mind-Set
I started working for Bill Moss in 1959, just before he licensed the Pop Tent to the King Seeley Thermos Company in a move to meet the astonishing demand, a demand that was rising along with the sales of Ford’s affordable, outdoorsy Ranch Wagon. Instead of featuring unshaven he-men with shotguns in a sinister forest, an article in Ford Times showed a handsome young couple with two cute kids and a dog cavorting at a manicured lakeside campsite. Their Ranch Wagon and Pop Tent were prominently displayed in the background.

It was already clear that the revolutionary design could change the camping game. It soon did. Color photos of Pop Tents appeared in national magazines. The combination of an easily set-up camp and an unusually useful car was widely credited with igniting a surge in car camping, which in turn spurred widespread campground and trail building, and eventually a backcountry hiking boom that raised public interest in environmental matters just as Bill had hoped. Ford Times continued to showcase Moss Associates designs, including the first Econoline van camper conversion, which I designed in 1960.

Note that the Pop Tent’s success did not depend on the conventional marketing approaches of that Edsel era. We did not need user research, customer clinics, or focus groups. The product was right and the time was right. Bill’s meme-changing design attracted enough inventors, entrepreneurs, and public interest to form an entirely new industry and national pastime.

The Pop Tent was selling well through the Thermos dealers, but we had long hoped to interest Sears, Roebuck and Company, which was then the world’s largest tent retailer. After months of runaround, we finally got a 10-minute appointment with the Sears tent buyer. Bill triumphantly whipped open his Pop Tent in less than a minute right there in the office, without a rope or stake in sight. The tent buyer gave it a cursory glance, then snorted derisively, “It’s just an umbrella with a floor! If the public had wanted something like this, they would have demanded it and we’d already be selling it. Next!”

We were shocked and dismayed. What could that guy be thinking? Why was he so hostile to a great product that (we assumed) would sell well? Bill Moss wondered what he’d done wrong, but what really puzzled me was the Sears buyer’s contention that the public demands a product not yet seen or even hoped for. I have heard that claim many times since. I still think that it’s a myth.

Experienced marketers know that customers don’t demand things they’ve never seen. The buyer’s excuse revealed a commonly held mind-set that tended to deter the introduction of any new product no matter what its advantages. That buyer probably thought he was looking out for the best interests of Sears, but his attitude amounted to a defense of the comfortable status quo against all other considerations. Defensiveness and innovation rarely mix usefully.

A Fuel-Efficient Gamble
Since that discouraging day, I’ve learned that most innovative designers have bumped up against that same mind-set. Buckminster Fuller, with whom I occasionally worked, attempted to produce his aluminum Dymaxion “Wichita” House in 1946. The house needed minimal site preparation and no foundation, and could be erected in just two days, furniture and all. Its rot-resistant materials required no maintenance or replacement. Heating, cooling, and dehumidifying were accomplished by solar means. It was uniquely tornado resistant. It was easily upgraded as technology improved. Fortune magazine hailed it as a sure moneymaker, but the Dymaxion failed, despite its advanced design and the strong demand for post–World War II housing. In his own recollection of the episode, published in his 1983 book, A Grunch of Giants (available here), Bucky wrote that he had received about 36,000 unsolicited orders.

 
 
 
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