THINKPIECE: Throwing money off the roof makes for good PR, but you need more than that to stay in business

’I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, etc., to attract attention, but I never believed that any amount of advertising or energy would make a spurious article permanently successful.’ - P.T. Barnum

’I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, etc., to attract attention, but I never believed that any amount of advertising or energy would make a spurious article permanently successful.’ - P.T. Barnum

’I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet,

beating the gongs, drums, etc., to attract attention, but I never

believed that any amount of advertising or energy would make a spurious

article permanently successful.’ - P.T. Barnum





Harold Ruttenberg learned well from Mr. Barnum, the 1800s entrepreneur

best known for the circus that bears his name. Like Barnum, Ruttenberg,

who in just 10 years grew his Just For Feet athletic retail concept from

one location to a 180-store, dollars 775 million chain, had a knack for

making money. And the similarities between Barnum and Ruttenberg don’t

end there.



Like Barnum, Ruttenberg thought big. His massive, out-of-mall stores

featured video screens, booming music, free popcorn and basketball

courts.



While the traditional in-mall athletic footwear retailers focused on the

fashion-conscious teen, Ruttenberg set out to appeal to a much wider

audience.



Ruttenberg also shared Barnum’s strong belief in advertising. Just For

Feet’s frequent newspaper ads, though unpolished, doggedly touted the

chain’s blockbuster sales and giveaways. And it was Ruttenberg who

decided to buy time during the Super Bowl. While the ad was panned

widely, one had to admire his audacity, no matter how shortsighted.



But Ruttenberg, like Barnum, didn’t rely solely on paid messages to get

attention. For example, as part of the grand opening activities for Just

For Feet stores, employees would fling hundreds of dollars in cash from

the roof.



Ruttenberg also welcomed calls from reporters, who were often surprised

when his name and phone number were listed on company news releases.

Writers also knew they could count on him for candid comments. Like any

well-trained CEO, he would praise his concept and management team

unabashedly. But he’d also criticize his competition, poking fun at

their work ethic and narrow focus. Ruttenberg, like Barnum, knew that

his outspokenness would generate more interest in him and his

business.



Both were millionaires, showmen and trailblazers. But in the long run,

even Ruttenberg’s antics couldn’t prop up athletic retail’s ’Greatest

Show on Earth.’ Excessive inventories, over-expansion and reckless

spending eventually caught up with the chain, causing it to miss a

dollars 12 million interest payment on its bonds. The company filed for

bankruptcy in November.



Ruttenberg, it seems, failed to grasp what may have been Barnum’s most

important lesson: a ’spurious’ endeavor can only survive in the short

term, regardless of how well it’s promoted.





- Chris Anderson is an assistant visiting professor at Southern

Methodist University. He previously spent three years as the senior PR

pro at Footaction USA.



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