Why we need to rethink what we never think about – Part 1


This is the first in what will be a series of letters between thought leader, Carol Spieckerman and me regarding the revolutionary changes taking place in business.  The purpose of these letters will be to consider those aspects of business, first principles or guiding principles, that although they are the basis for all of our decisions, we never think about.

Carol is the President of new market builders, an out-of-enterprise resource to licensors, licensees and agencies that seek to optimize their direct-to-retail positioning. She is a noted speaker, retail and branding thought leader and regular contributor to national news and industry publications.

The format will be to post my letter to Carol in one posting and her response in the next.  I hope you enjoy our dialogue and join in.

6a0133ec87bd6d970b01348694acf8970c-320wi Dear Carol,

Have you ever thought about how many mistakes are made in business because the first principles upon which people make decisions are either wrong or outmoded?  In fact, have you ever considered the notion that most businesspeople don’t even know what first principles are?

Just so we are on the same page, I define a first principle, or organizing principle if you will, as a generalization that a community of people accepts as true and upon which they make decisions.  Most people never think about first principles because, most of the time, they are invisible.

In order for me to illustrate my point, let’s consider something not attached the consumer products industry. Consider driving a car;  in the United States a first principle is that we all drive on the right side of the road.   No one thinks about it; they just take it for granted.

What they are familiar with, however, are the laws and penalties upon which that organizing principle are 6a0133ec87bd6d970b01348694be43970c-320wi based.   The only time they become aware of the first principle of driving on the right side of the road is when they leave the United States and go to a place like England.  In that country, people of course, drive on the left side of the road and the first principle no longer works.  In fact, not seeing this change in the first principle can get you arrested or even killed.

In the consumer products industry, we have our own set of first principles.   For example, one I want to consider with you today is the first principle of how we designate departments.  

The departments as we find in our stores id not actually exist prior to rise of the aptly named department store in the 19th century.   These 19th century businessmen (and they were men) are the ones who essentially determined where and how, we in the 21st century designate product categories and merchandise our stores.  You can thank them for dividing products by gender, for separating soft goods from hard goods and for making sure that the hardware department was not near the lady’s dresses.

It’s been a long time since 1839 when Aristide Boucicaut founded what is believed to be the world’s first department store, Bon Marche, in Paris.  Don’t you think that after 179 years, with massive changes in how race, gender and longevity are perceived, not to mention technology; communication and a host of other factors, that we take a step back and reconsider whether these ancient department designations constrain or even prevent the flow of new and innovative products to the consumer?  After all, if there is no place to put a product, no retail buyer will list it.

Let me give you an example from my experience.  A number of years ago, I was with a toy company that decided to bring games for senior citizens to market.  The idea was that these seniors would respond to products that had over sized pieces, large print rules, etc.  The challenge was that toy departments were deemed to be children’s departments.  There was a place for girl’s toys and a place for boy’s toys but there was no place for toys or games for seniors.   We failed because there simply was no place in the store for a game or toy that was designed for senior citizens.

6a0133ec87bd6d970b0133f3709cee970b-200wi Imagine what would happen if we were to change this first principle from the notion that the toy department is for boys and girls to one that the toy departments is for families?  New products would be developed, new companies would come into existence and retailers would increase their sales.

Do you agree with me that some first principles are outdated?  If you do, can you tell me what you think of my point and if you see similar cases where our first principles no longer apply?



Richard Gottlieb

3 thoughts

  1. I think it’s funny how we have developed a marketing culture for women, children, teens, then tweeners…but still can’t find a way to make old age seem cool, glamorous, or even interesting. Marketing and design for seniors still seems very limited. With the coming shift in age of our population, I expect that might change.
    Many products made specifically for seniors are health aides- and made by small companies where engineering controls design. There seems to be alot of opportunity there for design innovation and user focused design. Maybe revolution won’t be found within toys in the coming decade- but within products for seniors.

  2. Fantastic observation Richard. As someone relatively new to the toy industry I find that learning how the buyers work, and how they categorize, is one of the most important parts of my education.
    Having worked in electronic games before that, I experienced the same exact problem. We had a title, The Home Gene-Splicing Kit, that won amazing awards, got fantastic press, but we couldn’t get it into a store because it didn’t fit any of the very tight categories that buyers demanded. It was an entertainment title. More of a toy than a game. And no one knew where to put it. I learned the hard lesson that distribution is everything. And I experienced the frustration that it’s difficult to convince people to change.
    We have a lot of opportunity to redefine at this point in time. It will be interesting to see what it takes for us to do so. I’m looking forward to your continued discussions.

  3. Absolutely fascinating observation on the toys department. I think my dad had even more fun than I did with my toys, like the model railroad sets and video games. Toys really should be seen as collaborative as well as androgynous.
    Outside of just sales and product possibilities, it seems like a new view of toys as products that families use together would help bring families together, rather than only something to occupy a child’s busy hands. But I have no children yet, so I have no right to say really. 🙂

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