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Economist Tyler Cowen had a rather extensive conversation with poet and former NEA Chair, Dana Gioia, on a plethora of topics. The one that most quickly grabbed me was right out of the gate when Cowen asks Gioia about his success at marketing Jell-O. He said it took him 2.5 years to conceptualize and then sell General Foods on Jell-o Jigglers which ended up reversing a 25 year downward trend and doubling sales overnight.
Gioia says that while General Foods was the best food company around in the 1950s, by the 1980s they were foundering because they didn’t know how to re-imagine their products. If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, you may remember that there were all these recipes that involved using Jell-O in intricate ways. (My family had one of their cookbooks and actually made a few.)
Gioia’s approach was to greatly simplify the use to re-imagine the product and make it relevant to consumers.
…rather than creating an elaborate recipe, which was what we were trying to sell people for 40 years, simply a way that you could add water with your kids, put it in the refrigerator and have it ready as a finger food in one hour.
…it was the way of using three times as much Jell-O for an occasion in which people would never use Jell-O, which is to make your own gummy bears. It became a mom-kid activity. We sold every box of Jell-O in the United States for several months.
When I read that, it made me think in the 1980s Gioia was basically doing what we in the arts have only just started to do recently –focus on how our product creates connection with family and friends.
Gioia also talks about how he brought a poet’s humanities based creativity to solve problems for a disciplined, data-driven corporation:
I was a poet, but I needed a job, so, I went to business school, I got an MBA, and I ended up in marketing at General Foods which is a highly analytic company with a very military organization. It was absolutely fantastic at managing existing businesses with a maximum of efficiency. What they were not good at was, in a sense, reconceptualizing a business that was in trouble, because they would simply try to do more or less of what they had done before.
…but with each promotion at General Foods, actually the particular skills I had, which was in a sense of — I’m very good at reconceptualizing things, taking a solution that people have had, breaking it apart, and creating a new solution. I essentially brought creativity that was completely in command of the numbers, if you can understand. That’s a very fairly rare combination, and I was able to transform several businesses there.
Definitely lessons in there for the arts and culture sector as they try to reconstitute and reinvent themselves in the coming years. Cowen and Gioia go on to talk about poetry, religion, opera (“What is opera except the suffering of people with high voices.”) among other things throughout the interview.