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Breaking Bad eCommerce: What Merchants Can Learn from Walter White

Breaking Bad eCommerce: What Merchants Can Learn from Walter White

by John Larkin

John runs the blog here at eCommerceLift and is a verified Shopify Expert. Interested in an initial growth consultation? Click here

9 years ago

Breaking Bad eCommerce: What Merchants Can Learn from Walter White

It’s almost a year since the Breaking Bad finale hit our screens. Fans are still awaiting the spin-off show based on lawyer Saul Goodman. A single still-image from the series, which is currently being filmed (entitled ‘Better Call Saul’) was the most-read story on the London Independent’s homepage last week.

But this blog isn’t one of the multitudes of Breaking Bad fan sites. Instead, we aim to inform eCommerce merchants about what lessons they can learn from a whole range of things. We accept that it might seem a little tenuous to claim that Breaking Bad holds many lessons for your average retailer.

It is, after all, a series where a middle-aged chemistry teacher turns into one of the world’s largest meth manufacturers and dealers, one that was big enough that it could theoretically “have been listed on the Nasdaq”.

But even a publication as august as The Economist said “[Breaking Bad] is one of the best studies available of the dynamics of modern business. A Harvard MBA will set you back $90,000 (plus two years’ lost income). You can buy a deluxe edition of all five seasons of “Breaking Bad”, complete with a plastic money barrel, for $209.99, or a regular edition for less than $80.”

Even Warren Buffett, currently listed by Bloomberg as the world’s richest man called the show’s protagonist, Walter White, “a great businessman” and went as so far as to dress up as the character in his Christmas cards last year.

So, we’re now going to look at the three lessons your eCommerce store could learn from the series Forbes calls “the best series ever”.

Learn by doing

For all that management consultants claim that there is a right and wrong way to do things, most rational eCommerce merchants know that, to a large degree, trial and error plays an important role in figuring out the right formula for your business.

In Breaking Bad, the character of Jesse Pinkman first came to us as a typical junkie burnout. He was making his own fairly rubbish version of meth before he came under Walter White’s wing. His attitude towards his product (and science in general) was summed up when he explained to Walt… “Look, I like making cherry product, but let’s keep it real, alright? We make poison for people who don’t care. We probably have the most unpicky customers in the world.”

After only a few months of on-the-job training under Walt’s expert and precise tutelage, Jesse routinely produced meth at a quality of 92 percent. This is a mark only slightly lower than that achieved by his tutor Walt (99 percent) and higher than that achieved by Gale Boetticher (a trained chemist with a Masters in Organic Chemistry and a specialisation in x-ray crystallography).

Learning on the job works. Trying your own formula can work wonders. Here at PropelAd, we always advise eCommerce retailers that they have to experiment when they start to advertise. Start with a small group and scale it out when you find out what works. You don’t need to target everyone.

If you can target 10,000 people with an ad you can get a fairly good idea of how effective the campaign is for a fairly low investment. But there is no point in just thinking about it - the best way to define who best to advertise your business is to start advertising - even if you spend as little as $50, you can find out a hell of a lot.

The product is everything

Walter White claims he is not in the ‘meth business’ or even ‘the money business’. He’s in the ‘empire business’. But that empire came from the fact that he was selling the best and purest product in the market (meth at a purity of 99 percent).

Walt was an inspired chemist - there is no doubt about that. Though it is never expanded upon fully, there is cause to believe that he was shafted by his two best friends who became billionaires off the back of his research with their company Grey Matter. This meant that when it came to his meth business - he was going to be as ruthless as possible.

Without counting the people who might have overdosed on his product or the dealers who might have died selling it, Walt was directly responsible for the deaths of 269 people (including 168 who died in a plane crash after he allowed the air traffic controller’s daughter (and Jesse’s girlfriend) to choke on her own vomit which then lead the controller to have a meltdown at work and crash two planes into each other).

Despite the carnage that followed him around - the product was so pure that a businessman as savvy as Gus Fring - a man who had built up a multi-billion dollar methamphetamine business while retaining the veneer of simply being a small-town businessman with his Pollos Hermanos restaurant chain - kept him around despite knowing that he was a loose cannon and that it could all blow up in his face. Which it did, literally.

For eCommerce retailers, product choice is key. We recommend that before trying out an advertising campaign that you should start with a product you know sells. That way you know that it is one of the other variables (the photo you are using, the market you are targeting, the copy you are using) that is wrong and hence you can solve the problem by elimination.

Protect your brand

Not only is Walter White’s meth the purest, and therefore, most potent in the business, but because of a chemical reaction in the manufacturing process; it has a distinctive blue tinge. This means that on the street, customers call it ‘Blue’ or ‘Blue Magic’ and are able to ask for it by name.

Essentially, the distinctive colour (as opposed to ‘regular meth’ which was pretty much transparent) becomes the brand image. Customers know that the mythical Heisenberg (White’s criminal alter ego) produces ‘Blue’ and they are, in effect, guaranteed of the quality of the product once they know it was produced by him. (Indeed in a perfect case of life imitating art, real-life meth producers started adding blue dye after the show became a hit in the States).

Indeed when Walt takes a step back from the meth business towards the end of the series but Lydia and Todd keep up production, he comes up with a product that is not as pure which she is not so concerned about. But when he tells her that it is clear… she tells him in no uncertain terms “our customers expect blue”.

Again, this chimes with something we’ve been explaining to retailers for a while. The story behind your product is just sometimes more compelling as the product itself. So... what is the best way to ensure you stay successful? What is the best way to reach customers, but most importantly, connect with them, and keep them coming back to your store? Well, it’s surprisingly simple. It’s not about marketing in the classic sense of the word – it’s about establishing a connection.

A strong "About Us" page is vital for any site, but for eCommerce retailers, it is absolutely key. Customers are always wary when shopping online, so your "About Us" page is a way to show that your company is genuine and credible. They want to know will they  receive the item they’ve purchased, so the more you tell them about the people who run your business, the better.

Obviously, Walter White didn’t tell much of his own story. It wouldn’t exactly make sense for him to have an “About Us” page on a website detailing the full extent of the heinous crimes he committed. Nevertheless, he is happy to have the name ‘Heisenberg’ out there - the seminal “Say my name” scene where he makes a business rival say his name as a symbol of notoriety being just one example.

Overall, you might be best served by ignoring most of Walter White’s lessons - but these three shouldn’t send you far wrong.


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