Bear Ballyhoo

I just don’t like meetings very much. If you have information to impart, just send me an email.   I’m particularly bad at brainstorming meetings – you know, where you write down all your outrageous idea on post-it notes, or on huge sheets of paper stuck up on the wall.  The moderator ALWAYS starts out with “every idea is valuable” and warns everyone not to bring up negatives.

This is hard for me. I’m a problem solver and when presented with a problem and possible solutions, my brain immediately starts working through each solution to see if it’s viable, if it could solve the problem.  Of course, most of the ideas that get thrown out at brainstorming meetings are ridiculous and can easily be ruled out as good solutions – but only if you’re allowed to rule them out.  As I’ve never been able to stop my mind from looking for the logistics in brainstorming meetings, I tend to sit quietly, taking notes.  Luckily my boss knows this about me and she rarely asked me to take part in these kinds of sessions.

But boy, Build-a-Bear could have used someone like me in the meeting where they decided to run a “Pay Your Age” promotion one day last week. If you brought in your child, you could get a bear for your child’s age… and even if you were getting the bear for yourself, the cap on the price was $29.  Here’s one of the many news stories from Thursday:

“Pay Your Age” could only have come up during a brainstorming meeting in which everybody had been exhorted to listen to all ideas fairly and not comment. It’s hard to imagine a lot of experienced business people not being able to think through the problems with this marketing ploy unless they were cowed into silence. How could they not know there would be an immediate and huge response to them basically giving the bears away?   How could they not figure out that a few employees in the stores would not be able to handle the crush of customers?  And how could they not think about the natural reactions of people with their kids standing in line for hours, being jostled by the strangers in front and behind them?

Obviously my observations are in hindsight, but I’m pretty sure if I’d been in that brainstorming meeting, my brain would have come up with a lot of reasons why this wouldn’t work – at least in the way it was rolled out. But would I have said anything or just taken a bunch of notes about how stupid meetings are?

So bears. Yea or nay?

49 thoughts on “Bear Ballyhoo”

  1. It may just be too early, VS, but I’m not sure what the question is. Do I think this bear promotion was a good idea? Do I like stuffed bear toys? Will wait an see what more perceptive baboons come up with.

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    1. Don’t really need us to weigh in on whether it was a good promotion. The fact that most of the stores worldwide had to close down at some point during the day pretty much says it all.

      Tell me about your favorite bear, if you have one. Actual or fictional. And if you have a completely different topic you’d like to discuss, all ideas are welcome. No squelching input at this brainstorming session!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Aside from whether or not the promotion was a good idea (it wasn’t), you have to wonder about the people who arrived at the store and saw the line trailing down the block and decided to stay. This is not a place where you pick out your bear, pay for it and leave. This, presumably, is as much about the experience as about the product, where the child and parent are working together, choosing options to customize a bear and doing whatever they do to put it all together. That normally would be a casual, relaxed process. Not, however, with dozens of customers waiting their turn. Imagine the pressure. Wouldn’t you say that all those people clamoring to get in the store had lost sight of the core, the heart of the experience for the sake of saving a few bucks? And of course that places no value on the time they willingly spent in line.

    Ideas like the Pay Your Age promotion are either the product of an idea-generating meeting—an ideation, as they say in the biz—or the product of an executive decree and I’m not so sure it wasn’t the latter. It’s true that participants in an ideation are admonished to be positive and every idea, no matter how lame, gets written down. The principle is that even bad ideas can trigger good ones. In a proper ideation, there is a winnowing process and ultimately some sort of vote that, culls the bad ideas without overtly criticizing them. That works if there are no underlying power dynamics going on. In other words, if your boss is a participant in the session, you might feel pressured to support his ideas despite your reservations, especially if he or she is the sort of boss that has an inflated sence of his or her brilliance. That’s also how ides by decree get implemented even when the impending train wreck is apparent. Nobody wants to be the one to speak truth to power.

    It’s always fascinating to contemplate really bad business decisions, whether it’s a promotion like this or an advertising program or just the name of a product and wonder how it made its way through the requisite meetings and levels of approval.

    Liked by 6 people

      1. I don’t know much about Build-a-Bear, since it’s not a business I ever considered patronizing, but I’d say that their debacle is the sort of thing that can happen when you don’t really know what business you’re in. They aren’t in the bear selling business. Bears are the means of providing a quasi-creative, customized experience with a satisfying outcome. They are in the experience business. If you look at their business that way, it’s clear why the promotion was all wrong.

        Liked by 3 people

    1. Bill, I like your thinking. I hadn’t read your comment when I wrote my post, but we seem to share perspectives.

      I recently read an explanation of the most notorious bad business decision of recent times, the promotion of a new formula for Coca Cola. And, guess what, if you study the way that decision was made, it was a sensible response to a difficult moment for that corporation. Or at least the decision seemed sound to those who made it at the time.

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      1. Before you set out to solve a problem, it’s always a good idea to be sure you completely understand the real problem. Don’t make assumptions.

        Liked by 3 people

    2. Same principle applies when teachers lead discussion. If they really want a discussion they have to keep their opinions out of it and just facilitate.
      I am surprised they did not field test this in a limited market.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’ll go a way that differs a bit. One of my peculiar obsessions is the way humans fool themselves, misusing failures to draw lessons that are not true (or at least are not as true as they seem to be). We often hear that “hindsight is twenty-twenty.” That is a lie. It only seems so because we are so sure, based on hindsight, that we might have avoided a mistake by making a different choice.

    These issues are complex and deceptive, I think. When it is so clear that someone has made a choice that backfired, it is easy to become smug and sure we could have chosen better. Overwhelmingly, though, my life’s experiences have taught me to distrust hindsight. I don’t believe it is fair or useful.

    Knowing how badly the teddy bear promotion failed, it is easy to say it was not a good idea. And I fear it is too easy to imagine we could have avoided that mistake, had we been there when someone proposed this promotion. Well, maybe. Or maybe not. I’ll admit this issue is a sort of obsession with me, and I don’t insist that the Build a Bear folks were stupid to fail to predict the outcome of their idea.

    One of the consequences of my skepticism about hindsight is that I have compassion for people who make risky choices. I sympathize with politicians, sports coaches and others who try to do well in risky enterprises. They are sure to fail, sometimes spectacularly. And then the world turns on them, convinced that the decisions were so obviously wrong that the folks who took long shots and failed should be ashamed of themselves. Courage is not always rewarded. Failure is derided, often unfairly.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Rise and Come up with an Idea Baboons,

    There is actual organizational and psychological research on “Brainstorming.” Interestingly, it demonstrates that the technique above is not the best way to generate ideas and discussion. The most productive way to do that is to engage in a low tension discussion of various points of view. In other words, no Fox-news style “talking over everyone in the room” sessions. Rather various people play devil’s advocate and take differing points of view. Once the “Juice” starts to flow, members of the discussion start to generate more WORKABLE ideas.

    The book outlining this is called,”Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration.” By Sawyer.

    VS, the reason this idea did not work, is not due to brainstorming great or bad ideas. It is probably because a group leader or actual person in a position to hire and fire came up with the idea and no one would play devil’s advocate about what could go wrong with it.

    Group Think. Bay of Pigs dynamics. Much like the dynamics in the nation’s capital now. Guaranteed to create unsuccessful outcomes.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes – there are quite a few ways this might have started – I just thought it was one of the possibilities!

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      1. I have to assume that the original objective was to increase store traffic. It can’t have been increase revenue, since they were selling the bears at a loss, unless the price reduction hadn’t been anticipated in the original objective. It doesn’t take a genius to know you can increase store traffic by essentially giving your product away, but it’s evident that the focus was short term with no regard for long term.

        With the benefit of hindsight, you could rewrite the objectives:

        1. Our present and potential customers have a favorable association with our stores; let’s see if we can replace that with feelings of outrage.

        2. Not everyone will be a repeat customer. Why don’t we eliminate those one-timers by selling them a bear at a loss?

        3. If this promotion succeeds, we can get lots of free media coverage.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Ideations work best if there is at least a core component of experienced ideators, who are comfortable free-associating and can set the tone for the session. It goes without saying that upper management should not be participants. If all the participants are new to the process, too much time gets spent on establishing the preliminary principles.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. And I don’t think I have EVER been in an ideation that wasn’t RUN by an upper management type. Probably part of the reason I like these kinds of meetings least of all.

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        1. If upper management is participating, the whole meeting becomes a kind of kabuki aimed at validating what management wants to do.

          Liked by 3 people

        2. Speaking of kabuki, the story of the original Teddy bear is applicable and instructive. Most of you probably know the story, at least in some abbreviated form.
          Theodore Roosevelt was, in my opinion, engaged in a life-long kabuki aimed at establishing his manliness, which seemed in his mind to never be a settled question.
          When the Governor of Mississippi invited Roosevelt on a bear hunt, he enlisted a team of experienced hunters and guides to protect the President and also to insure him a good time. He perhaps didn’t spell out what a good time would entail—his objectives were vague. The nature, the essence, of an authentic hunt lies in the uncertainty of its outcome, but the hunters hired to guide Roosevelt apparently understood “a good time” to mean that Roosevelt would get to kill something. After a day or so, the President hadn’t seen a bear and was getting impatient. When their dogs picked up the scent of a bear, some of the guides followed and cornered an old bear, which killed one of the dogs. The hunters managed to injure and disable the bear and tied it to a tree, then summoned Roosevelt to come kill it. When he arrived on the scene and saw the disabled and restrained bear, Roosevelt refused to shoot it. This was interpreted as an act of mercy and sportsmanlike behavior. You could also say that Roosevelt considered the killing insufficiently manly. Newspaper accounts playing up the President’s apparent mercy inspired the creation of a stuffed bear toy that became an immediate hit and cultural icon.

          After Roosevelt’s refusal to kill the bear, the guides slit its throat and over the next few days, the hunting party ate it.

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  5. A few versions of that store were in our mall. None lasted long. Our grand daughter was at the right age for them when they hit THE MALL. She has a few in her now teenage room. She did play with them, carry them around sleep with them. I have a photo of her holding the cat and a bear while lying on her back. Cute image.
    Despite all that, I find such products and market not a positive sign about our culture.
    I am too tired to say more. I watched the Twins game yesterday.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I understand your sentiment and concur. In a similar vein, I have a motto I apply to stores like Michael’s:
      “Where creativity goes to die.”

      Liked by 5 people

      1. I have to write a tagline for my fledging nature photography business. I bet you could come up with some good ones for me, Bill.

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        1. Well, it doesn’t really fit what I do or who I do it for, so, okay, I won’t use that one.

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        2. Since the tagline is one of the things I’m stuck on (one of many), maybe I should write a post and see if the baboons can come up with a cleaver line.

          Liked by 2 people

  6. One reason my emotions run a bit high on this topic is the way the blame game affects political decision making, especially in the modern hyper-partisan context. There is virtually no risk to politicians for kicking the can down the road. There is great risk for attempting to solve problems with original thinking. If politicians dither we usually keep re-electing them. If they try something a bit different and fail, they’re toast. No wonder our leaders fail to act until we are in such a crisis that there is no alternative.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You make the best decision you can with the information you have at the time.
    Sometimes it just comes down to that.

    Bears. Never had a teddy bear. Amelia has had an assortment of stuffed animals that she chooses to sleep with. Currently it’s a bright neon yellow ‘something’. Dog? Bear? Frog? Honestly, I guess I’m not sure… it’s just a stuffed something.

    I hear other farmers say there are more black bears in SE MN than people think. I’ve never seen one although there have been reports of some in the area. I’d like to see one.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. OT Sister My phone rang in the other room. Said Cleo Calling. (My sister) I answered. She asked why I called. I said she called me. She said. Huh. And hung up
    Gotta love us warm Germans.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. My recently deceased 81 year old aunt loved teddy bears. Her children always gave her teddies as gifts. Now they have to dispose of a boatload of bears. There were a couple in her casket.

    One of my first traumas was when I was 4 and the vacuum started on fire in my bedroom while my mother was cleaning and a large brown teddy, my favorite, caught fire. I remember my mother running out of the house with a burning bear.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Two bear stories that interest me right now are Col. Thomas Bangs Thorpe’s The Big Bear of Arkansas and Albert Bigelow Paine’s The Arkansaw Bear. Thorpe’s story, from 1854, is a humorous tall hunting tale about a mythic, shape-shifting “unhuntable” bear. The story was a touchstone in early southwestern humor and became the namesake for an entire category of frontier tall tales.
    The Paine book is a charming children’s story about a boy—Bosephus— and Horatio, a fiddle-playing bear. Albert Bigelow Paine was a biographer of Mark Twain and the first executor of Twain’s literary papers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “The Bear” by Faulkner is interesting and no law requires you to read that pile of crap in part 3, I think part 3. A short story, especially if you skip the mess. Beyond interesting in fact, more from a literary point of view but a good bear hunt story. Its a metaphor.

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  11. I’ll not repeat my sad teddy bear story here; it’s still saddens me that I had to burn him after all attempts to rid him of termites failed.

    Liked by 1 person

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