Business 101: When Change is Bad

For as long as I could remember, the direct-mail publishing industry was serviced by a newsletter titled (very smartly) “Who’s Mailing What!” It was written by Denny Hatch, an old pro, and was full of the wise and pithy observations you’d expect from an experienced insider. Recently, it was sold to a corporate publisher and advertising company. (I suppose Denny wanted to retire or write books — which he did. I’ve recommended his “Method Marketing” to you.)

The new owners made two quick changes. They put a much younger person in charge of editorial and they changed the name to “InsideDirectMail.” I understand the desire to improve something once you’ve taken ownership of it, but I don’t think either of these changes worked — and I wonder why these guys didn’t insist that Denny continue to supervise editorial? And why the name change? The editorial degradation was apparent from day one.

Since I have the habit of ignoring heads and bylines when I read, I didn’t notice that the editor was new. But I could tell immediately that the copy was different. Instead of Denny’s slightly jaded yet dead-on insights, I was assaulted by peppery fresh banalities. Instead of those wry and clever commentaries on dubious business practices that Denny did so well, I trudged through sophomoric moralizing.

One section of the issue — raw data on who is mailing what — remained the same, so I’ve kept the subscription. But I don’t read the rest of the newsletter anymore. And the day that information is available elsewhere, I may cancel my subscription (unless it gets better in some miraculous way). In every field of interest, there is a great and important difference between good and excellent. We’ve talked about these differences with respect to art and wine, but they are equally important with violins and French horns, satin sheets and brass lamps, bandages and kneepads.

When you are selling something as sophisticated as a publishing product, you’d think you would make every effort to ensure that the quality of that product would always continue to improve. Maybe the new owners of “Who’s Mailing What!” thought they were energizing the newsletter by hiring a younger editor. (Oh, well) But why, after 20 years of being a standard in a very inside industry, trash the trademark? Did someone honestly think the clunky “InsideDirectMail” was somehow better than the sublimely simple “Who’s Mailing What!” — which is, after all, the first question every direct marketer asks when he sits down to read an industry publication.

Two lessons to learn from this example:

1. If you are selling a product to sophisticated customers, make sure it is always getting better, never worse. Be aware of the perils of incremental degradation. Value experience.

2. Replace trademarks only when they are tainted or effete. Never change a product you buy or take on simply to put a new (i.e., your own) brand on it.