Marketing follies in the WordPress theme arena

Ordinarily something like a CodeinWP Transparency Report #8 wouldn’t be noteworthy. But the report goes on to describe how the company in question, ThemeIsle, “lost $30,000 due to a single line of CSS.”

Reading on further, what the report is alluding to is that this company which sells WordPress themes at one time offered three different options: one theme with one year of support for $67, access to all themes with two years of support for $99 (marked down from $123, which is possibly a “fake” regular price), and access to all themes with lifetime support for $199. By getting rid of the least expensive option, thus forcing customers who just want one theme to pay another $32, they aren’t “losing” this $30,000 any more.

If this seems outrageous, that’s because it is. It’s not unlike, say, Taco Bell taking a la carte drinks off the menu and then offering a combo with only nachos and a drink for about what both would cost a la carte (say $2.59 or so), for the customers that want “just a drink.” How long would Taco Bell last with this policy? Customers would leave in droves for McDonald’s or Wendy’s or just about anywhere else.

Sure, for the developers who will eventually use two or three of the themes, the middle option is a better deal. But for the rest of the people? Honestly, I’d be more inclined to just use a free theme or a less expensive commercial theme.

Also, there is the issue of the “fake markdown” from $123 to $99. That really needs to go, unless at some point that option will become $123 again. This is the kind of thing that gives marketing a bad name. That, to me, reeks of the odious odor of obnoxious and unscrupulous furniture and car salespeople. If they are going to be sold commercially (which apparently they will be for at least the immediate future), WordPress themes shouldn’t be sold with lame tricks like this.

The post I’m commenting on is from late November and references sales figures from September and October. So apparently, this “fake markdown” has been in place since at least September, and is still there today (in December). Will the price ever go back up to $123? (Was it ever $123 to begin with?) If so, when? If not, get rid of “$123.00” with the line striking through it again. (And next time, don’t try to make it look expensive by putting the “.00” in there, when every other price on the board is a round dollar amount with no cents. That’s also unethical.)

Rather than “lost $30,000 due to a single line of CSS”, I would characterize this as “didn’t realize there was $30,000 to be made by questionable if not outright unethical means.” I’m not suggesting not to buy from ThemeIsle specifically, but this should be kept in mind before buying commerical WordPress themes from anyone.

Is PepsiCo’s “Score For Your School” out of bounds?

Michele Simon’s blog Appetite For Profit recently featured a piece on PepsiCo’s “Score For Your School” promotion, decrying it as “stealth marketing” and in poor taste given youth obesity rates. I quote in part:

How thoughtful of Frito-Lay to create a fun and easy way for fans to help sports programs. Couldn’t have anything to do with how many more chips would get sold would it? Because if the company really cared, how about just sending a check to each Texas high school football team instead? This program… is capped at $90,000 in donations, a drop in the bucket for the nation’s largest salty snack purveyor.

But this marketing-disguised-as-philanthropy is by now old territory for PepsiCo. For the past year, the company has been gaining much positive PR with its ubiquitous Pepsi Refresh donation program.

This is only a small sampling of Michele’s rather vicious attack on PepsiCo (which owns the Frito-Lay brand, in case you’re confused from the change in references).

It’s a bit hard to know where to weigh in on this one; there is some validity over allowing a company like PepsiCo any access to marketing towards children at all at this kind of level. I admire a good marketing and/or PR campaign as much as any consultant in the field. I will admit to having a rather large soft spot for Fritos and the like-branded bean dip; indeed, a soft spot large enough that it was not all that long ago I was wearing size 42 pants (I currently have on a pair in size 38).

I have not looked up the details of the program. I am familiar enough with the Frito-Lay product line to know there is (or at least was) a baked variant of Lay’s potato chips along with other health-conscious offerings. It is quite possible to be health conscious and still participate in this campaign; however, the issue of appropriate boundaries for marketing remains.

I do think this campaign was not well planned by PepsiCo and the implications of encouraging the purchase of snack foods perceived as unhealthy (despite the fact this may not be true for some items) to help school sports teams should have been more carefully considered. Thirty, twenty, or maybe even ten years ago, this would have been an easy, non-controversial promotion, with everyone being happy and PepsiCo cashing in. Unfortunately, here in 2010, no matter how good the intentions, this type of campaign will draw criticism. Even if PepsiCo were to drop most of the unhealthy items tomorrow, it will be years to decades into the future before the unhealthy reputation of the Frito-Lay product line fades away.

Reputation is everything. PepsiCo forgot that.

Starting them off young: school’s insistence on brand name supplies

I’m writing this one based on a tip from a concerned friend of a parent of a Copperas Cove ISD elementary school student, and based on some replies I got on Twitter when I asked about this. I’m not mentioning the specific school for privacy reasons, and because it really doesn’t matter (I looked at the school supply lists for all of the district’s schools and they are all like this).

At issue here is the practice of mentioning brand names on school supplies. There are tons of examples like this, but as a random example here’s the Martin Walker elementary list for pre-kindergarten (this is a screenshot of my PDF reader edited only by cropping; I have made no attempt to correct misspellings of brand names):


I count at least four brand name mentions: “Ziplock” bags (the brand name is actually spelled Ziploc without the “k”), Crayola crayons, Elmer’s glue, and “Playdough” (the actual brand name is Play-Doh). (Don’t worry, I’ll get to the spelling issue in a moment; it’s tangential to the core reason for my post.)

Now, the rationale one of my Twitter followers gave in the specific case of crayons is that the colors change between Crayola and, say, Rose Art or a store brand. I would assume this applies to colored markers or other colored art supplies as well. As true as this may be, while I’m a fan of good marketing and branding, I find this a bit disturbing in two, possibly three different ways.

The first is that not all parents can necessarily afford to pay a premium for name brand products. I will admit at one point I was one of those kids growing up: I was called among other derisive names “the K-Mart kid” (this was before Wal-Mart’s dominance, in fact, this was when we still had K-Mart in Houston, years before K-Mart bet the farm on Martha Stewart prior to her legal difficulties in 2004). However, there is an amusing anecdote here: with some help we (my mom, grandmother, and I) did find a pair of Nike Wimbledon tennis shoes at a discount clothing outlet (Weiner’s) that all the kids thought we bought at Foot Locker for $70. (To my former classmates out there reading this: Fooled ya!) Anyway, kidding and humorous anecdotes aside, I think it’s a bit over-the-top for schools to insist upon brand names from parents pinching pennies for school supplies.

The second, which may be somewhat related to the first, is that we already have enough jealousy among school kids about clothing, shoes, and other fashion-related items such as backpacks. This adds to the “uneven playing field” when little Johnny or Jane are making do with Rose Art crayons while the better-off kids are showing off their set of Crayola. As much as the schools would like to make it so, asking for brand name items does not magically put money in the pockets of parents who have to buy them. It means maybe more of the kids will show up with, in this case, Crayola crayons, but the poorer kids will stand out that much more as a result.

The third, kids are impressionable. There are strict limits on advertising during children’s television programs for a reason. Now this is where my admiration of branding and marketing is really put to the test. I’m not opposed to marketing towards kids, but I think the first years of elementary school are a bit too young to surround kids with the insistence on name-brand items. There will be plenty of time for kids to learn consumerism and the nuances of branding and advertising from a consumer point of view. I’m pretty sure they won’t get it in kindergarten or first grade.

Now, the least the school districts can do, if they must put brand names in the school supply shopping lists, is spell them correctly. This is first and foremost, respect for the companies and their trademarks, and second, it’s also an example for the kids that will get to see these lists as well (they see them more often than school administrators think). Usually the school supplies change little from year to year, so it should be a simple matter of keeping a list of the name brands and how to spell them to refer to when late July/early August rolls around (or whenever the list comes out). Really, what does it say about our public school system when the school supply lists are published with mistakes such as these? What kind of confidence does it give the kids that know better and may even say “look mommy, they misspelled Ziploc” when they find it?

Skittles adds Twitter turquoise to its rainbow

So I was up late checking out Twitter, reading some of the URLs posted, as well as the occasional refresh on Flickr to see the latest happenings in a couple of groups I’ve gotten really active in, and other miscellaneous things. And then this caught my eye:

mashable: Skittles has changed its entire homepage to a Twitter search – brave! #skittles

Well, not entirely true. As served, there’s a Flash movie overlay that first asks for your birthdate (I never found out exactly what changes for over/under 18 or 13, and I am assuming nothing changes for over/under 21 since the last Skittles I had weren’t vodka or rum flavored). Get past this, though, and indeed you see the Twitter search as a backdrop.

I think from then on the next few tweets of mine tell the story best:

skquinn: @mashable and it didn’t take long for someone to say “%$&# you Skittles, %$&# you in the eye”

skquinn: wow. news of Skittles changing the site to mainly show a Twitter search spread, and the profanity/vulgarity starts *flying*!

skquinn: We have a “%$&# you in the eye”, a “suck my %$&#”, a “spam the %$&# out of that”, and it gets even better #skittles

skquinn: someone did a “#$%* #$%* #$%* #$%* #$%*#$%*er mother#$%*#$er and #$%” — yes, Carlin’s seven dirty words! #skittles

There were certainly others I missed or didn’t really think were quite as notable. I think things have calmed down enough now, of course we will no doubt see the occasional bozo that says “look I can tweet a swear word and it shows up on” but overall this is the gutsiest marketing move I have seen in a while (except for the unnecessary dependency on Flash), so much so that I’m probably going to buy a couple of bags of Skittles next chance I get.

Incidentally, the rest of the Flash movie-based navigation on the new takes you to a Facebook page, a YouTube account (or a YouTube search, can’t remember right offhand), and the Skittles account on Flickr. There is also a link to the Wikipedia article on Skittles which shows up if you have Javascript disabled; I am guessing this may be what’s switched in by the birthdate check.