(or, Scarcity Part One)


Imagine you’re the CEO of a tech company and you’re about to unveil the highly anticipated latest iteration of a beloved product.  You’re up there on stage, showing off the shiny curves, and intuitive workings of the doodad…and right when you’re about to display an awesome new feature, a real blockbuster new upgrade to the old product…clunk clunk clunk…the damn thing doesn’t work.  You stumble and sweat and mutter your way through the glitch, but man…heads are gonna roll.  The whole world is watching and your little gadget takes a poo right on stage.

Now imagine who gets the blame for this cock-up.  Does the press write up your engineers?  Do they piss on your bad judgement for going to bat when the gizmo aint’ ready?  Nope.  You know who’s head rolls?  SOME OTHER COMPANY ENTIRELY!

Such was the case with the Apple iPhone 4 unveiling last week.  Jobs’ demonstration of a feature got borked by the network crapping, and the scapegoat for the fuck-up was none other than AT&T.  Apple has hitched it’s wagon to the telecom provider, and in the U.S. if you want one of Steve’s shiny little uber-phones, you’re stuck paying for service that really only works whenever it damn well pleases.

What is interesting to me here is that devotion to the Apple products, and a complete faith in the company has not wavered.  Apple is one of the most popular, and strongest tech companies in the world, with legions of people speculating on their next move even before they’ve finished unveiling their latest new innovation.  Apple is the INSERT NAME OF LATEST IT GIRL HERE.

AT&T meanwhile is the Britney Spears, staggering drunkenly from tattoo parlor to tequila bar, bearing little resemblance to the hot little number she used to be and every day, with every misstep looking more and more like a punchline.

Apple is trading in something else besides shiny tech gadgets, and billions of dollars.  Apple is working with a brand new currency: trust. I am told that there is a thing out there called economics and it hinges greatly on the idea of supply and demand.  When demand is high and supply is scarce, prices go up…that sort of thing.

Trust isn’t something you can buy…or at least not easily.  It’s fairly cheap but gaining it requires some creativity…and some chutzpah: for Dominoes pizza it was about admitting their old recipe sucked.  For Google it’s been serving you unobtrusive ads, and pulling out of China when things got too hairy.  Zappos‘ “Make Customers Happy” budget is reportedly not humongous, and more than makes up for itself in customer loyalty.  So it doesn’t cost a lot of money: but it’s still a scarce commodity.

And it diminishes for every restaurant that posts a positive review of itself on Yelp.  It seeps away for every customer service rep that tells you they’ll call you back in an hour, or that the only way to get in touch is to fax your complaint to an office located four hours outside of civilization.

So when a company wants to talk to me, whether it’s a banner ad on boingboing, or a sponsorship message in a podcast, there’s a different calculation to be made.   Do I trust that I’m really the 10 billionth visitor to the site and I’ve won a free Ipad?  Do I trust that Otto Von Hammersmith DDS really is a “Pain-Free” dentist?  Do I trust that Enzyte will really enhance my manhood?   (No, No, and unfortunately not).

Talking with people (rather than advertising at them) is a two way street.  Does the video auto play the ad when I load a page or do they trust that I’ll click play if the product interests me?  It’s a distinct change in the way companies deal with their customers.  Watching the AMC show Mad Men will give you a sense of that.  No longer is it enough to broadcast a message.  Your message must be rooted in trust.  And trust is a scarce commodity.

Next week: the other scarce commodity and the new gate keepers.