"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 27 June 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

La Dolce Viacom



On Chicago's Michigan Avenue,

within screaming distance of the

local NikeTown, the Sony Store,

and myriad couture boutiques,

Viacom Inc. just opened a

30,000-square-foot store that

embodies synergy in 3-D. And

it's more sophisticated than

simple cross-promotion, like

ABC's airing the network debut

of Disney's The Lion King during

sweeps. Pushing further than the

Virgin or Tower superstores,

Viacom's new joint may become a

blueprint for selling pop

culture. Resembling a wall-less

mall, the store has six sections

sporting products spun from

Viacom's most marketable brands

- Star Trek, Nickelodeon, MTV,

VH-1, Nick at Nite, and

Paramount Pictures. The shows

create a desire to visit a

section and each section sells a

"lifestyle." But over time, each

section also sells its faithful

on other Viacom products.


Not surprisingly, the store's

prime real estate, the one part

visible from outside, goes to

Nickelodeon - during the media

frenzy preceding the store's

star-studded opening, Viacom

head honcho Sumner Redstone

tagged Nickelodeon "the most

powerful brand on earth." (Uh,

Sumner, wouldn't the Marlboro

Man trample Nickelodeon's

Rugrats in, say, China?) Though

monitors in the entryway spell

out "V-I-A-C-O-M," Nickelodeon's

Yves Tanguy-like contraption

really grabs you. Every time a

kid pushes its huge plastic

button, a clattering cacophony

erupts. Interactivity sells

here, big time - Viacom suits

praise the "immersive shopping



Acting as bait, Nickelodeon sucks

in families strolling Michigan

Avenue's tony "Magnificent

Mile." But only feet from

Nickelodeon, the store's most

age-targeted section, lies its

most mass-market, the Paramount

Pictures expanse. Here you'll

find some not-for-sale movie

memorabilia like a Ten

Commandments chariot and the

Nike Cortezes from Forrest

Gump. But there's a much larger

spread of for-sale stuff: US$395

Paramount Pictures golf bags,

Cheers sweatshirts, Cafe Nervosa

coffee sets tied to Frasier.



Equally vanilla, the VH-1 section

abuts Paramount's. In fact, it's

virtually an extension of the

film house's domain, as if

Viacom knew the brand remains a

little inchoate. It's really

just a CD listening station, an

exhibit of rock-star photos and

a rack selling logo tchotchkes.

The most telling item: A VH-1

golf set packaged in a water

bottle - balls, tees, and towel

emblazoned with the image of a

golfer in Panama hat, plus-four

knickers, and two-tone spikes.

He's on the backswing of his

stroke, fingers gripping a

guitar rather than a golf club,

a perfect embodiment of the

network's bland Hootieism.


Step five paces from Viacom and

you'll feel Lilliputian on Nick

at Nite's 10-foot-by-10-foot

white and pale-avocado linoleum

squares. A '50s pastiche, this

niche holds everything from

Arnold's Diner milkshake glasses

to The Honeymooners' TV set.

Then there are accessories like

the Life board game, sea

monkeys, and never-worn vintage

casual wear. The retro gear

doesn't have any Viacom

branding, but it does make the

section a one-stop shop for

aspiring retro-TV connoisseurs.

Never mind that back in the

'50s, the hipsters sporting

those poly threads were more

likely drinking whiskey in jazz

joints than playing Life. Now,

by lumping these products into

one section, marketers create a

new "lifestyle," based around

owning their products.



Upstairs at MTV,

lifestyle-selling reigns as

well, from Road Rules backpacks

to MTV skateboards to $35

Hasband slacks with rubbery,

removable "Found by MTV" labels

attached. Acknowledging

"alternative" MTV viewers won't

wear its logo, Viacom's

clothiers created brands like

the Speed Racer-with-barrettes

Ravegirl or the Schwa-on-Prozac

Alien lines; only the inside tag

says "MTV." Not surprisingly,

the best-selling MTV area hawks

Beavis and Butt-head, where you

can have a picture taken with

their plastic simulacrums.


Likewise, over in planet Star

Trek, tourist families pose

before a blue screen and grip

phasers to shoot a hologram

image of their brood "beaming

up." Reflecting Trekkers'

infamous fanaticism, this

section has many of the stores'

pricier items: $395 tricorders,

$295 USS Enterprise models. It

also has the most rigorously

schooled staff - a sales

associate confides that it takes

five weeks of training and

passage of a Star Trek trivia

test to sell Worf mousepads and

"Starbase Chicago" shirts. Then

again, with fans showing up in

full Star Trek uniforms,

jabbering inside jokes in

Klingon, the last thing staffers

would want is to come off as

posers. Conversely, you want

them to walk away feeling more

closely bonded with the people

pimping Picard.



But there's more at stake than

daily sales; the Viacom retail

stores could also spawn

cradle-to-grave Viacom

entertainment consumers. It has

a show for every age group, and

by putting them all in one

store, Viacom starts building

brand loyalties before a

consumer actually shifts

demographic niches. An

11-year-old child scoring gooey

Gak or Floam in the Nickelodeon

section might wander

distractedly into MTV's section,

finding an adolescent lifestyle

complete with $14 MTV dog tags.

Likewise, college kids

outgrowing The Grind or Singled

Out's midriff-baring antics can

find a more sophisticated mode

in the cocktail paraphernalia of

Nick at Nite's Ricky

Ricardo-derived Club Babalu.


Granted, buyers might never grasp

that Viacom's their media

dealer. Unlike Nike or

Microsoft, media titans cannot

brashly slap their name on an

ever-widening range of brand

extensions. Quite the opposite,

in fact, for projects demand a

unique "personality" to foster

bonding with viewer niches. You

see this clearly in movie

marketing - people hardly see

films based on the studio, but

rather on the stars or director.

In building Viacom's own

identity - and perhaps in this

sense its only one - its retail

division seems doomed to

failure. Then again, they may

already know that - there's not

much here that sports the Viacom

logo, besides the shopping bags.


Walking past the store two weeks

after it opened, Chicago graphic

designer Jason Pickleman doesn't

even know what "Viacom" means.

Jason's a highbrow guy, the kind

of man whose pad makes the

architecture mags. But he's also

an American in his early 30s, so

by the time we get to Star Trek,

he exclaims, "This is great -

it's the end of culture!"

Strolling back into the June

sunlight, though, he admits that

the store perfectly mirrored his

consumer drives. But if that

mirror is also the "end of

culture," what does that mean?

He pauses, frowns, then

concedes, "It means I'm holding

the gun." That's OK, Jason,

we're all holding it with you.


courtesy of prolex

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