In these extraordinary times, the majority of people are largely housebound and our leisure activity is restricted to what is available within the home.
We can’t visit restaurants, attend events or – crucially – go to the movies, which has given streaming services such as Netflix a huge boost.
Yet a cursory glance at media history shows that, pandemic or not, there has always been a battle about what, where, when and how we watch entertainment. One of the most interesting episodes in the race to control ownership of the remote control took place in the early 1980s when Sony and JVC went head-to-head with rival video recorder technologies.
Video presented the first chance for people to break ranks with broadcasting orthodoxy. If you couldn’t watch your favourite programme, movie or sporting event when it was transmitted, it didn’t matter. Just bung in a tape, set the timer (or, according to popular legend, ask your kids to set the timer for you) and view at your leisure.
The biggest decision for households was which technology to invest in – or it would have been the biggest decision, were it not for several strategic errors made by Sony, whose Betamax system was wiped out commercially by the rival VHS machine developed by JVC.
Customer relationships in the wake of coronavirus
As we look forward to the world beyond COVID-19, and brands begin to reassess their relationship with customers, it’s worth reflecting on the reasons why VHS triumphed over Betamax, despite the latter being seen as the superior technology. It’s a tale that highlights the importance of understanding the market, and having a strategy that is geared towards the customer.
Betamax recorders offered superior picture and sound reproduction, and more robust construction. Yet it had one key weakness: the tapes could only record an hour’s worth of material, whereas VHS could offer twice that. Given that the primary function was simply to deliver the convenience of time-shifted viewing, recording quality mattered less than being able to capture the full programme – which, in the case of a movie or sports match, Betamax couldn’t.
The other big difference was pricing. Not only were Betamax’s manufacturing costs higher, but JVC cannily licensed its technology, so that multiple brands could compete in the VHS market, further driving down the price.
And once VHS achieved an early foothold, its future was secure because the more people who owned a recorder, the greater the opportunity to share tapes – an early example of ‘going viral’. There were few sorrier sights at school that the kid with the Betamax, ostracised from the VHS-sharing majority while continuing to howl into the void about having better picture quality.
Adapting your marketing strategy in the changing world
Even forty years on, there are powerful marketing lessons to be learned from the videotape format war – but they are particularly acute right now. The world has changed considerably, and nobody knows exactly how it will settle down once lockdown ends. Even the most methodical and data-driven businesses will need to revisit their marketing strategies, because Coronavirus has transformed certainties into assumptions.
What’s most important is that future activity is geared towards achieving effective results. Betamax’s mistake was to focus on the output – sound, picture – rather than the desired outcome of people being able to watch an entire film or match. The same is true of every campaign, every social media post, every piece of PR. The most eye-catching creative is wasted investment if it doesn’t resonate with the target audience. The pithiest tweet is worthless if nobody engages with it.
Instead, absorb the lessons of JVC’s more pragmatic and flexible approach. Now more than ever, we need to think carefully about the end goal of any campaign. Research the market, target the right audiences, be clear about the objectives. As long as the strategy is outcome-driven, the results will come.
But let’s be broad-minded about how best to achieve those results. In the post-normal world after COVID-19, the tactic of choice is likely to change rapidly and regularly – because who wants to do the same thing over and over again? If the video revolution taught us anything, it was the pleasure of continual renewal, of wiping over an old show with something new. After months in lockdown, we’re all going to want a bit more variety in our marketing mix.
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