Am I the only one that feels that lately we have had to settle? Settle for poor design, poor content, and poor construction in the product lines that were once much more inspired and creative? Lets face it, what was GROUNDBREAKING years ago is commonplace today, and when that happens, adaptation is required. Things that would have been worth hundreds or thousands in 2004 or 2005, may only be worth one tenth of previous value, mainly because the collective expectations have changed. There is also a general understanding that mediocrity sells, and that there is no reason to strive for excellence, because it A) costs more to produce and B) takes more time to make. Well, that’s all fine and dandy until the market responds in kind, something that has already started to ripple through the ocean of the hobby.
Its funny, you look at a card like the Cam Newton Superfractor, a card that will sell higher than any other card this year. Why will a card, whose sole distinguishing factor being the serial number on the back and the gold design on the front, sell higher than an NFL logo autographed 1/1 from a box that costs 400 dollars? Continuity, design, prestige, collector perception – all of those, no doubt about it. Then the question remains, how do you build continuity and brand loyalty in a market that already has too many products that all look exactly alike?
Here are my suggestions.
On Card as the Rule, Not the Exception
Its odd how excited I get when I see a set has on card rookie content. Excitement over hard signed signatures never used to be the case, if not only because Upper Deck put out close to 9 sets in one year with almost 100% hard signed autos. I understand that football doesn’t necessarily lend itself well to obtaining these autographs during the window set forth by the NFLPA. However, with careful planning as displayed by UD in 2009, I have to believe it is possible again.
This year, only one set (pending previews for NT) will have hard signed veteran signatures as a feature. That is completely unacceptable. Five Star not only costs 500 a box, but it is not available during a time when football is still being played. Upper Deck Philadelphia was on card and cost 50 bucks a box. It was one of the best looking low end products ever created. Because Upper Deck set expectations so high with the rest of their calendar, it didn’t sell as well as it would today.
If card companies want to build loyalty to a brand, they will need to start with high execution on high expectations. Topps has made strides getting hard signed rookie signatures in collector favorites like Chrome and Finest, and look what happened to boxes – prices skyrocketed. If they had offered hard signed veteran autographs as well, prices would have doubled. Football autographs cost more than I could ever imagine, but it’s a long term investment in a brand. Think of what would have happened if there were hard signed veteran base cards to accompany the rookie autos in Topps Chrome. It would have been a bloodbath. Boxes would be even more unattainable than they are now.
Raise Redemption Expectations
Hard signed autographs should be where every product starts. If the end includes some stickers and redemptions out of necessity, that is understandable. Collectors only hate redemptions because they are never done in a timely manner or filled appropriately. I have no problem with redemptions as long as I feel comfortable with the end result of what may happen. Redemptions are rarely anything other than the player being flaky with their responsibilities to sign the cards. What benefit do they see? They make millions per year, there is no reason to sign the cards for the 30K payday.
So, if the expectations are set appropriately, there is no reason for people to be scared. I want to be able to choose replacements from the pool, do it in a timeframe that isn’t frustrating, and have the ability to get comparable value for an unfulfilled card. Book value means nothing, and it never will as long as there is a free worldwide marketplace used by almost every collector. Investments in customer service dedicated to helping these kinds of issues will be paid back tenfold. Companies need to update websites with top of the line functionality. Not only will it allow for more risks to be taken on hard signed cards, but it will add value to their products. If I know I am never going to get SCREWED in my redemptions, I will have much more willingness to participate.
Strengthen Defenses Against Counterfeits
There is a unique dichotomy that exists in this hobby between two groups when it comes to fakes (both autos and patches). First there is the scared. Don’t get me wrong here, we should be scared. There is every reason to be scared – especially due to the ever growing need to include ridiculous patches in every parallel of a card. How are we supposed to tell real from fake when there are logo patches in cards numbered to 50. These people (myself included), don’t buy the cards we used to, out of fear of getting scammed out of our hard earned money. That’s a terrible thing, especially for building brand awareness and loyalty. Panini has offered confirmation services on patches for years, but that is only AFTER you have purchased the card. Its not helpful.
The second group of people are the uneducated. Because the uneducated people don’t know there are fakes out there, they are unable to avoid the scams. Not only do the manufacturers not participate in education, but the hobby trade publications do not participate. Their reasoning is that collectors will become part of the first group, but that is exactly where they should be.
The solution is one that will not only be expensive but it will take effort on both the collector side and the manufacturer side. We already know that eBay will not stand against the bad apples because they will lose a lot of money in auction fees. So, there needs to be a quick opinion option for the collectors prior to buying any card. The manufacturers will also need a reference point, which is where the online patch database will need to come into play. Either that, or the content of the patch in the card needs to be printed ON THE CARD itself like it was for some of the cards from 2011 Plates and Patches.
In terms of fake auto cards, we see that PSA and JSA have authenticated them in the past. The counterfeits are so real looking that even the authenticators don’t suspect anything is amiss. Once one of them is graded as real, all of them are now real based on precedence. This quick opinion option is another solution, but the money spent to launch it will result in more loyalty.
Commitment to Top Design in EVERY Card
I don’t know any other industry that rewards poor looking products more than the card industry. In the automotive industry, ugly cars don’t sell, because they don’t widely appeal to everyone. I know you cant please everyone, but its easy to try to please the biggest portion of the market. When you look at a set like Contenders, its an obvious downgrade from the design last year. I think MOST would agree on that. Not only that, but with Absolute, the design is better than it was previously, but its not as good as it COULD HAVE BEEN.
Each product that is released on the calendar needs to have design as focus. The products where more time was spent in development seem to sell better. I say “seem” over “do” because who actually knows what goes into each. There have to be ones where less time is spent, and I think I could guess which ones those are. Commitment to design excellence would no doubt HELP the brand loyalty and success, especially if the people designing the products were given more direction from the people that matter – US.
The solution is more involvement from the collector base prior to the production of the cards. If I were in the shoes of a product designer, there are a few groups of people I would ALWAYS approach for feedback: Sellers of my product as well as buyers of my product. Focus groups of sellers/collectors who would volunteer their time could be INVALUABLE feedback on the product lines of the future release calendar. Give people a chance to weigh in.
From my communications with Panini on twitter, as well as the emails I get daily of their inability to take any feedback on their site, it seems as though they don’t care what anyone thinks. I have to believe that Topps and Upper Deck are very similar, just because of sheer number of people that fire off their thoughts at them. Therefore, its essential to get feedback in a constructive way, by selecting carefully who you solicit. We saw in Chicago that just taking any joe collector off the street leads to questions that focus on subjects that DON’T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE to the general population.
Heighten Awareness With a Dedicated Online Presence
If there is one thing that Panini has done better than anyone, its being visible to a ton of people. Topps is starting to catch up, but they are miles behind. I think, with the growing presence of online personas, a dedicated person specific to interactions with people online needs to be on the payroll at every manufacturer. Not only on twitter, but on Message boards, facebook, everywhere. Especially message boards, as they are becoming the new local shop for gathering of collectors. They need to be the face of the company in a way like has kind of been done at Panini.
Im not talking about the adver-breaks of products and pimping non-stop with stuff that is obviously below par, but someone specifically dedicated to working with people to promote awareness and education. If I had someone that I could go to as a normal collector, I would definitely be more willing to buy products from said company. The reason being, if I had a problem, I would have someone to go to.
Build Content Around What Works
People hate scrub autos and they hate scrub jersey cards, in fact, I think they have to hate jersey cards all together if pricing is any indication. I know that scrub autographs are in place to negate the cost of star players in many products, but then it becomes a question if they are even really necessary if the product is built correctly.
Does every box need jersey cards and autographs if these cards are really that worthless? Do we need 35 rookies at the premiere each year when 75% will be out of the league in less than 5 years. If you look at structure and content, Chrome has more value in its parallels than it does in the per box autograph. That is crazy talk in today’s world, but maybe it’s a good thing.
Upper Deck had it right with the Shadow Box cards, and they had it more correct when they started looking to create content that isn’t game used or signed. You just need ideas. I asked a representative about content creation in Chicago with a very simple question – How many times do you guys actually just try to think of new ways to build content? Do you ever just sit around a conference table and figure it out? His answer? “We used to, but we don’t anymore.” Perfect.
Panini has been on my shit list for watering down every element of the box break. Its awful. 4 hits – 2 autos and 2 jerseys – 90-100 bucks. Its like clockwork for almost every product. Topps isn’t much better, but they have more success because design and theme is much better. Who says you need to charge that much if you just take the approach to go after DEMAND through lowering SUPPLY. Autographs should be tougher to pull, and that is why Topps’ SP Rookie Autos that ran through the first products were much more valuable. There weren’t as many of them, so more people wanted them.
Are these the only way to improve on products?
No, these ways are the tip of the iceberg, but it is really hard to be happy that they are seemingly ignored. If companies are going to weather ANOTHER recession that is on its way, things are going to need to change. Not only will they need to change, they will need to change drastically. What works now will not work forever, and that’s saying that it actually does work now. Apple is where it is because they adjusted things ahead of the market’s need. I think the most successful companies will figure this out and we will start to see exactly what they mean when they say groundbreaking improvements. Ill tell you this – ITS NOT VIDEO CARDS.