Cantankerous Wisdom: Marketing or Drinking Kool Aid?

By Bill Adams

Slang sayings have evolved throughout history that are downright rude, crude, and abrasive. In particular, the saying “Drinking the Kool Aid” is used in the fire service predominantly by some fire apparatus vendors in a derogatorily manner to belittle a purchaser who has, or is, purchasing a competitor’s fire truck. It’s not right and shouldn’t be condoned. The adage derives from a tragic 30-year-old incident where almost 1,000 people committed suicide by drinking a poisoned liquid, which ironically was not the trade-marked Kool Aid product—an unfair hit on that manufacturer.

In the fire truck arena, the cliché is an unintended testament, albeit a crude one, to the success of the marketing strategies of successful apparatus manufacturers and an inadvertent self-revelation of the shortcomings of the unsuccessful ones. Some manufacturers do an excellent job of creating a brand and a brand following. Unfortunately, some that do not may resort to slinging arrows. This article addresses both. I had a lengthy conversation about the topic with a former business associate at a local watering hole. His comments are interspersed in mine. Inappropriate language, slurred words, and manufacturers’ names are omitted. 

Since the beginning of time, human and even animal nature has been instinctive to the elimination of competition of perceived enemies. That natural reaction is evident in the fire truck world. One reason is possibly because of the limited number of apparatus purchased each year. Some manufacturers spend huge sums of money to eliminate competition through marketing, which I define as the wise implementation of advertising, self-promotion, and image building. Some have done an excellent job of creating brand and a brand following.

Occasionally a culture is created where purchasers go out of their way to purchase a manufacturer’s rig without really knowing why! Honest buyers will tell you they’re buying the name—regardless of price, or quality, or even if that type of rig is really needed. “It’s gotta be good. Everyone’s buying’em.” That is a testament to excellent marketing. You could almost say the customer is drinking the Kool Aid. 

Competitors’ slings and arrows really come out when a manufacturer successfully combines a truly quality product, competitive pricing, and an excellent marketing strategy. I say to the competitors: “Too bad; you lost. Reevaluate your own marketing strategy or make a better product or maybe try making your own Kool Aid.” 

We kept regurgitating how manufacturers eliminate competition and increase market share. We mutually agreed that no amount of money spent in marketing by any fire apparatus manufacturer is going to increase the size of the domestic market itself. The only thing a company could attempt is increasing market share. Besides the aforementioned wise marketing strategies, we touched based on increasing market share by means of acquisitions and buy-outs. A buy-out is, in my opinion, when one company purchases another and closes it, thereby increasing the possibility of increasing market share. 

An acquisition is when one manufacturer (or a holding company) buys one or more of its competitor manufacturers. The acquisition(s) can result in each company operating independent of each other. That gives the buyer multiple licks at the ice cream cone. There’s also the possibility the purchased company(s) may be merged into one entity. Except for product line diversification or enhancement, I don’t know if the latter will increase market share. That’s above my pay grade.

Before the proprietor asked us to leave, we agreed that the accusations of “drinking the Kool Aid” are usually made by disgruntled local fire apparatus vendors (dealers, salespeople, etc.) and not the manufacturers themselves. Most manufacturers are above that type conduct. Sometimes local vendors forget their words, actions, attitudes, and conduct in the field reflects directly on the manufacturers they represent. That might be a costly error in judgement.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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