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A look at Faith Popcorn's new book, "EVEolution"

Knowledge@Wharton says author Faith Popcorn is a lot better at pronouncing her "Marketing Truths" than providing evidence for them.

In "EVEolution: The Eight Truths of Marketing to Women," trend maven Faith Popcorn discusses what women want...from on-site tailoring service at women's clothing stores to being asked for their opinion by the companies they deal with.

"Women and men are as different shop-ologically as they are biologically," Popcorn says. And given the importance of women in the marketplace--Popcorn says they "control or influence 80 percent of all consumer spending"--surely, this is a worthy topic for a book.

But for our money ($26.70 including tax), we'd like a worthier book than this one.

The problem is that Popcorn (whose narrative has been set down in first-person format by colleague and co-author Lys Marigold) is a lot better at pronouncing her "Marketing Truths" than providing evidence for them.

For example, Popcorn describes how Jiffy Lube, a client of her BrainReserve consulting firm, has taken her advice on connecting with female car owners. "Guns and Ammo is not preferred reading in the waiting room," Popcorn notes. She reports that, today, when a woman drives to a Jiffy Lube, an employee introduces himself to her. And if the woman wants to stay in her car while it's being serviced (say, because her child is sleeping in the back seat), that's fine.

Sounds like sensible marketing. But don't you want to know whether following this advice has increased the number of Jiffy Lube's female customers? Improved its bottom line? Improved the morale of employees? Anything? Popcorn doesn't say.

In another chapter, Popcorn describes how Nabisco came to her firm for help after sales of its SnackWell's brand of cookies slid from $270 million to $200 million in just two years. Why had the cookie crumbled? As Popcorn explains it, women who are not as skinny as Ally McBeal were dismissing fat-free cookies as the answer to their "body issues."

What was needed, she advised, was an effort to "nourish women's self esteem." And because moms are associated with cookies (as well as with apple pie), the best way to do this was for SnackWell's to sponsor mother-daughter workshops on self-esteem. These were successful, she says, without quantifying exactly how successful.

As it happens, Promo magazine hailed these workshops, as executed in 27 markets by WatersMolitor of Minneapolis, as one of the 10 best promotions of 1999. SnackWell's sales, which had slipped 25 percent in 1998, rose by 3 percent in 1999. But articles elsewhere last year reported that SnackWell's sales had declined because consumers didn't like the taste. Cookie buyers finally balked at sacrificing good taste to get fat free, especially as SnackWell's still had lots of calories. Nabisco responded by adding back some grams of fat (even if not as much as in Oreos) to restore taste. Shouldn't that have been mentioned?

A book about marketing should point out that what Nabisco really did was to tie a savvy promotion with a reformulation of the product. Such an explanation would only be recognizing that (to use the title of one of "EVEolution's" chapters) "Everything Matters."

In a book on how women are "different" from men, it matters that many of its examples are in areas in which men and women do not differ at all. To cite just one: Popcorn drops the statistic that fewer than 10 percent of women-owned businesses with fewer than 25 employees offer disability insurance as a benefit. You might conclude from this that insurance companies are ignoring the potential of women business owners. But just one call to the Health Insurance Association of America reveals that the statistic is true for all companies with fewer than 25 employees. Really now.

If you are a Faith Popcorn fan (her two previous books, "The Popcorn Report" and "Clicking," were best sellers, after all) you might consider the above comments to be minor quibbles. You may not mind that, in serving up her latest message, Popcorn includes a pitch for a line of home office furniture she helped develop, drops a plug for a company her co-author owns on the side, offers kudos to her clients, lavishly praises her own company, and uses one cutesy catchphrase after the other.

There are so many Popcornisms in "EVEolution" (like blamestorming, brand-me-down, nanospan and TrendProbe), that the book even starts out with a five-page glossary. This seems like overdoing it, but there's no denying that Popcorn's fascination with wordplay (starting with changing her last name from the much less catchy Plotkin in 1969) has served her well. American Demographics magazine may claim to have been first (in 1985) in noticing that baby-boomers were turning into homebodies, but even the magazine admits it was Popcorn (in "The Popcorn Report") who gave the trend its identifying name: cocooning.

What Popcorn does best in "EVEolution" is brainstorm ideas. In every chapter, she offers a bunch of ideas she thinks would win over women, each targeted to a type of company or even a specific company. She does this in that best-of-brainstorming tradition that says nothing is too way out or too silly to suggest because you never know where a good idea will come from. She doesn't get into cost-benefit ratios or other dull stuff. She just lets loose.

Department stores, says Popcorn, should offer shuttle buses from the far reaches of their parking lots or free valet parking, baby-sitting services run by trained professionals, child psychologists in the toy department, and email access in the dressing rooms.

Office Depot, she suggests, could become Life Depot, "offering a selection of last-minute items for the hard-pressed female small-business owner. 'Besides the ream of fax paper...send me a case of Coke...and a chili dinner for four. But first, and fast, a computer-repair person.'"

Fugazy Limousine Service, opines Popcorn, could make use of "dead time" that falls between taking an executive to and from a meeting, to ferry its employees' children home from school or to a friend's house, thereby pleasing female employees.

In the best chapter in the book, Popcorn addresses herself directly to corporate titan Ron Perelman, owner of Revlon, among other companies. Perelman, Popcorn points out, has taken "one of the great global brands" and moved it just this side of oblivion. Popcorn pops many kernels of ideas on what Revlon could do to regain its old glamour.

"Why can't Revlon sponsor a new kind of beauty pageant--focusing on beauty from within?" she asks. "Why can't Revlon become the facilitator of women's support groups?" Why not sell Revlon products from a cart that is wheeled right into offices? Why not put Revlon advertising on the side of a tampon?

If only because of its notion that Revlon needs to do something, Ron Perelman should buy this book. For others, we're not so sure.

To read more articles like this one, visit Knowledge@Wharton.

All materials copyright © 2000 of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.