Editor's Desk - March/April 2008

Don't Be a Victim of the Format Wars

Who can forget all the format wars of the past? I may be just a Generation X-er, but even I remember eight-tracks, cassette tapes and vinyl (which I still collect, by the way—old habits die hard). My family was one of the unfortunate ones to be on the wrong side of the Betamax-VHS battle. I vaguely recall our ever-more-obsolete Betamax VCR dying a long, slow death as we wore it out playing our videotapes of "Better Off Dead" and "The Breakfast Club."

Format wars—described by Wikipedia as the "competition between mutually incompatible proprietary formats, typically for data storage devices and recording formats for electronic media"—have been going on for more than a century. Believe it or not, even player pianos were nearly involved in a format war—until industry leaders agreed on a roll of 11.25 inches wide with nine holes per inch, allowing any roll of music to go into any player piano, regardless of the manufacturer.

This level of cooperation was great for consumers of player pianos—they didn't have to worry that their music would suddenly become obsolete when one manufacturer won out over the others. But it's not been repeated very often since then. Instead, the developers of proprietary formats battle it out, and as someone who has been on the losing side of several format wars, I can tell you that it stinks to suddenly find that your preferred version has lost.

There you sit with your now-obsolete eight-track player, wishing you could buy the latest release. Alas! (Of course, this is all coming from someone who refuses to pay for television and still uses rabbit ears to improve her reception.)

All that said, one of the latest format wars to play out—between Sony's Blu-Ray Disc and Toshiba's HD-DVD—seems to have been decided.

Both disc formats were meant to improve on the performance of the DVD, with the first HD-DVD player released in March 2006, and a Blu-Ray player following on its heels in June 2006. At the beginning, Blu-Ray got support from more movie studios and offered more movie titles, but Toshiba priced itself into the market, influencing more consumers to support the HD-DVD format by offering a lower price.

This past January, Blu-Ray won a large battle when Warner Brothers—the world's largest producer of DVDs—decided to go exclusively to Blu-Ray beginning in June 2008. Disney, MGM, Sony Pictures and Fox had also dumped HD-DVD.

The final blow was dealt when Wal-Mart announced it would only stock the Blu-Ray format, and Toshiba finally announced it was going to send HD-DVD to that graveyard where all once-competitive technologies go when the format war plays out.

Of course, just as music has increasingly moved from something you can hold in your hand (vinyl, eight-track, cassette tape, CD) to a digital download, high-def movies may be on the same track, and Toshiba as much as admitted to the Wall Street Journal that it now intends to get in on that end of the market.

What's the point of all this?

For you managers, HR professionals, marketing executives, sales directors and others out there who are looking to use merchandise to motivate your target audiences, the point is that you need to be sure to include the most relevant choices as part of your motivation plan. Your savvier players will do their research, but for those who don't care to follow the format wars, you need to stay on top of new developments on their behalf to be sure you're offering the most up-to-date, relevant options around.

This can play out in many ways, whether it's the latest technology for home theater systems or the newest innovations in other areas. We take a look at some of the new trends toward a more environmentally friendly approach to incentive merchandise beginning on page 22. (Who knows? In 20 years, our gas-guzzling automobiles may have reached the format-war graveyard too!) And for all the latest developments in digital cameras, check out our story on page 14. (Remember dropping off those little film canisters for developing?) And on page 12, we offer some advice on making sure your incentives are relevant to different demographics, as James Feldman of James Feldman Associates explains the ins and outs of tailored motivation.

Above all, don't forget to talk to your suppliers to find out about the latest developments in the merchandise you're offering, and be sure you incorporate techniques to ensure your program remains relevant to all of the people you're trying to engage.

All the best,

Emily Tipping
Editorial Director
Premium Incentive Products magazine


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