Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Modern Fable: China is the Borg

In 1900, a new book by a fledgling children’s author reached stores in America.  The 44-year old writer had a checkered career that included acting, breeding chickens, selling fine china, serving as secretary for a baseball team, and founding the National Association of Window Trimmers of America.

Indeed, his new children’s book contained elements of many of these life experiences: a dismal trip through Kansas, a plank road built to facilitate transport of farm produce in Syracuse, yellow paving bricks at the Military Academy in Peekskill, and the launch of an industrial oil brand to keep machine parts from seizing up.  He lived at different times of the year with his formidable mother-in-law, one of the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in America and a woman so controversial and scary as to be called “satanic,”—a wicked witch of sorts.  And, of course, the author's visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893—a veritable Emerald City--had left a lasting impression.

His children's book went on to sell millions of copies and, after its translation to film in 1939, would become the single most-watched movie of all time.  (This material is summarized from Evan I. Schwartz’s fascinating Finding Oz.)

All well and good, until 1964, when a high school history teacher named Henry Littlefield, attempting to interest his students in the Gilded Age, likened Lyman Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz to the 1880s populist movement in America.

According to Littlefield’s theory, which he freely admitted had no basis in fact. . .

the Yellow Brick Road was the gold standard, Dorothy’s slippers the push for a silver standard, the Scarecrow the farmer, the Tin Man the industrialist, the Cowardly Lion Williams Jennings Bryan, and the Wizard—President William McKinley.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Discovering Your Inner Swiss Watch

Regular readers to this blog know that I find the Swiss watch a fascinating yet completely inscrutable consumer product—one that, by all rights, shouldn’t even exist. 

No question it’s elegant, the product of superior craftsmanship, and resembles nothing less than strapping a miniature sports car to your wrist.  At the same time, how is it possible that thousands of people choose to purchase a $10,000 or $100,000 or $500,000 watch that performs less accurately, requires more maintenance, and has far fewer features than a $29 Timex?

My European friends say, “A man only gets to buy one piece of jewelry in his life.”  I say, maybe so, but the most amazing part of the Swiss (and French/German/European) watch phenomenon is that it defines inconspicuous consumption.  Walk into a business meeting with a $5,000 suit and everyone bows to your sartorial splendor; arrive in a $250 reversible-vest suit with a $350,000 Audemars Piguet wrapped round your wrist and you’re more than apt to get the last muffin (always, always a corn muffin) and cold coffee. 

In other words, if a $350,000 Swiss watch falls in the woods but is covered by your sleeve, does it make a noise? 

Certainly, you can stand up and make a long stretch to the fifth year, hockey-stick revenue bar on the white board, allowing the watch to blast out from your (French) cuff in all of its opulence, but that would be so déclassé.  So nouveau watch.  So American.   Hardly something an International businessman would intentionally do.

Almost as amazing is the fact that, throughout the depths of the recession, the luxury watch makers just kept advertising.  Not a day went by when readers of the Wall Street Journal wouldn't flip over a front page full of apocalyptic financial predictions only to be confronted with two or three largely unaffordable, jewel-filled watches with complications.  (In watch-speak, complications are a good thing, another irony of the product.  The Vacheron Constantins at the top of the page are full of complications, and also the fourth most expensive watches in the world.  $1.5M.)  So, the luxury watch industry gets points for chutzpah, if nothing else.

Are Swiss watchmakers maybe telling us something, some insight that has evaded Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins, some hidden truth behind the human condition?  After all, they’re selling an obscenely-priced product that has no valid reason to exist, purchased by people that use their entire year-end bonus to acquire something with inferior performance and extra maintenance, and then cover up its existence anyway.  And customers are ecstatic to do so.

Could you get such a business model financed?  Better yet, is this the secret to true happiness—being happy for all the wrong reasons, but being happy anyway?   

I think it must be.

Last week I did a quick summary of the total watch value each weekday on pages two and three of the WSJ.   It looked something like this:

Perhaps, in a world where self-help books outsell classics, and PhDs secretively read their horoscopes every morning, don’t the European watchmakers have something important to say?

My reading of this graph is simple: Go for broke on Wednesdays and Fridays, when your need for impoverishing inconspicuous consumption (otherwise known as happiness) is at its lowest point.  Wednesday is the day to do all the heavy lifting; Friday is the day to make all the big strategic and personal moves. 

Meanwhile, go for a very long lunch every Tuesday.  On Mondays: as you were.  (Nobody needs a graph to figure out Mondays.)  Thursday obviously depends on how much sleep you got the night before, and whether you had an argument with your spouse that morning.  In other words, don't walk under any ladders on Thursdays.

Could this all be any more obvious, now that I point it out?  Individual luxury watches magically hold the key to our individual happiness, but when you assemble the data and read the analytics, European watches can guide our lives just as well--perhaps better than--the next business book featuring lost cheese or colored cows or fish.

You need to unlock your hidden Swiss watch.

I offer this Rosetta Stone of happiness to you free of charge, and free of complications.  Now--can you hear it?--that $29 Timex on your wrist is announcing (with a Swiss accent) that it’s time for your next meeting.  Best get along and find your happiness.