The business of life (chapter 11 – what goes up..)

Back as a hero from Japan, waving my bit of paper committing to contract renewal, I felt somewhat like Neville Chamberlain promising ‘peace in our time’.  My first action was to debrief Gordon on the exact details of the trip and the letter of intent and make the necessary changes to the operating budget. The flush of success soon wore off (I think it took place some time that same afternoon).  I then sat down with the team to plan out the detailed marketing plan to ensure we achieved the revised targets that I had agreed to back in Tokyo.  We had a mountain to climb.  However, I’d found that I rather liked challenges.

The Akai Golf

As our new brand widening advertising campaign got underway, one of the unwelcome effects was that all manner of ‘unmissable opportunities’ started crawling out of the woodwork.  Most of these were not worth the time spent reading them, but then one of those serendipitous events occurred.  I received a letter from Richard Lloyd  (of GTI Engineering) seeking sponsorship for the forthcoming British Saloon Car Championship.  What caught my eye and set his approach apart from many others, was artwork of his Golf GTI in our brand livery.  We met, got on famously and I agreed to a package of sponsorship for the year, with an option on the next. I had the artwork for the car reworked, wheedled a road going version from VW that I had resprayed into a replica to use for dealer events and then bought a double decker bus (a Bristol FLF for anyone interested).  I had the bus converted into a hospitality suite, also repainted in the team livery.  We then set about using the races for dealer hospitality, something that became hugely popular, especially as Richard won time and again. Sponsorship became a core element within our communications mix, offering a high technology, exciting and success driven image that resonated with our target market.

 The team I had inherited came up with a variety of ideas for boosting sales and, following a review of these together, we decided that one had real potential to fit with the exciting image we were creating and to boost sales.  That year the Akai Awards were born.  Hammed up beyond belief, we announced to our dealers that they could nominate themselves to win a ‘coveted’ Akai Award for success in promoting the brand and growing sales.  Following a long weekend of exhausting investigation of venues around Europe (in the welcome company of my wife) I chose The Trianon Palace atVersailles and engaged the services of Michael Parkinson as host.  The event later that year was a runaway success.

The most critical new product introduction from Akai that year was the new VHS video recorder.  Head to head with competition from the other brands in the VHS technology camp (especially JVC) it was an all out systems battle with the Sony Betamax system. Against the odds, Akai was the first brand of VHS recorder onto the UK market (and ahead of Sony & JVC) with a batch of just 50 machines air freighted in.  These machines had a recommended retail price of £799 but even while the first batch was still in transit (and with no firm date for the next), retailers were advertising a price cut to £750. Despite a severe supply restriction from all manufacturers in that first year, the price continued to fall.

An interesting endeavour took place whilst I awaited the first VHS deliveries.  We had left in stock quite a large number of an earlier portable black and white quarter inch video system (the VT100).  Never much of a seller and now completely obsolete, these were something I had inherited and they now needed to be cleared prior to our VHS launch.  Thinking of ways to clear the stock (none of our retailers would touch them) I hit upon an idea. My father in law had been struggling to get me to understand what needed to be done to improve my golf swing (my failure not his).  I realised that if I could see what I was doing it would be so much easier to understand.  Back in the office I set about recruiting a temporary sales team to sell these systems into golf professionals.  We succeeded in clearing the stock but it was an uphill struggle to get these ‘professionals’ to envisage the potential of what we were offering!  The joke about the machine gun salesman getting turned away at the battle of Hastings came to mind.

As that first year progressed and sales climbed, research was showing that our brand awareness was rising and that of our competitors was falling.  We repeated the research on a regular basis and monitored consumer purchases via an omnibus survey of household buying by brand. It seemed that the battle for brand awareness was very much a zero sum game.  Using this detailed information I was able to determine which elements of our marketing mix were having the greatest effect on consumer purchases.  It was therefore possible to fine tune our spend in the most cost effective way.  Unfortunately, this knowledge couldn’t save me in a future battle that was looming.

A change that occurred that first year was David’s departure and replacement by Gerry.  A very different man to David, he exuded charm and bonhomie, but soon demonstrated a severe lack of marketing judgement or expertise.  Bounding into my office one Monday morning shortly afterwards, he announced that he had had a simply great idea for a completely new advertising campaign.  “Picture it,” he gushed (complete with a wide ranging variety of hand gestures), “a nude draped over the bonnet of a red Ferrari hugging an Akai product that doesn’t quite cover everything.”  “Great idea.” I responded, trying to muster enthusiasm, “Why don’t you join me at the advertising agency next time we’re having a brain-storming session and pitch it?”  Oh, shit, I thought.

My trips to Tokyo became fairly regular events.  Whilst these visits had been mentally exhausting over the winter, as the months turned to spring and early summer they became physical agony.  As the world was still suffering an energy crisis, Akai had decided that the air conditioning would only be switched on in July and August.  Sitting on the plastic covered chairs in a pool of sweat in one of the windowless meeting rooms, during an unseasonal heat wave in early summer, Andy and I were soon afflicted by a medical condition colloquially known as ‘baboon bum’.  Sweating and fidgeting away we decided that we needed ‘rest and recuperation’ to ensure our fitness before we returned to the office.  The advantage of crossing the international date line on the return leg was that of gaining a day.  Why not take advantage of this?  A call to rearrange our flights saw us that Friday evening jetting off to Hawaii rather than Anchorage.  If you’ve never done it, arriving at 6.00 am (after a seven hour flight) on the morning of the same day you departed at 6.00pm, takes a little adjusting to.  Friday was largely lost in a jet lagged haze but we did manage a few visits the next day and decided that the (then) Kahala Hilton atDiamond Head would make a fine venue for the next year’s Akai Awards. It took a subsequent visit a few month’s later just to ensure that we had made the correct decision.

Back in London the visit of the Akai Company President finally took place (having been continually delayed), resulting in a significant shock.  There was to be no contract renewal despite our raising sales by 50% in under two years to a new high of £6m.  Instead, it was announced that Akai was to form its own company that same year (1979).  I was involved in no further discussions and the President and his entourage moved on.  RAV promptly served redundancy notices on me and my entire team.  The personnel director assured me that he would let me know if any other roles became available within the group. Gordon was nowhere to be found.

Did my success count for nothing? Had my spell of success run its course?  With the trade unions wreaking havoc upon the economy, the three-day week, Britain being laughingly referred to as the sick man of Europe and with unemployment raging, the outlook seemed far from benign.  What followed over the next couple of years was to reveal aspects of my make-up that would cause me to question my abilities and the wisdom of meeting opposition head on

Image courtesy of Forzamotorsport.net

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