What if Barnes & Noble had produced ‘The Queen’s Gambit’?

Source: Netflix
Dec 15, 2020

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from the blog of Aptos.

“The Queen’s Gambit,” Netflix’s hit show, reportedly sent sales of chess sets soaring 1,048 percent for game maker Goliath Games. Now, imagine if Barnes & Noble had produced that show?

Then imagine if B&N had embedded exclusive, custom chess set designs into the show. Imagine further if they had created a chess club, complete with a curated assortment of chess strategy books and biographies, then hosted in-store tournaments for a chance to be cast as an extra in the show. Think of all those target audience awareness and engagement opportunities available to them — before the show even premiered.

People everywhere are looking for ways to connect (particularly right now) and the quality content business (Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, etc.) is booming. To me, retail seems ideally suited to capitalize on those opportunities.

What if Sur La Table had created and produced the “Great British Bake Off” (renamed “Great British Baking Show” in the U.S.)? Show recipes could have been published on Sur La Table’s website. The retailer could have run interviews with the show’s bakers on its blogs or podcasts. Behind-the-scenes content would thrill devoted viewers who just can’t get enough of that pleasant little show. And think of all the product placement opportunities.

What if IKEA had produced “Tiny House Hunters,” the hit Hulu show? Or Zara or H&M had produced “Project Runway”?

I know producing a successful show sounds like a long shot (or perhaps it would be a wide shot, in Hollywood parlance?), but producing a “hit” show is very different than it was even 10 years ago. Today’s television landscape is highly fragmented and the industry is clearly on the hunt for content. We need only appeal to a very targeted niche audience for a new show to get a shot at airtime. And connecting with our niche is all we really care about, right?

So why not look to Hollywood-style production companies to create the type of content that connects with those niche audiences? That’s exactly what those companies do — just like they do for all those holiday commercials retailers love to produce. Only bigger.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see a real opportunity for retailers to create Hollywood-style content? What do you see as the obvious and less obvious hurdles for retailers going Hollywood?

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27 Comments on "What if Barnes & Noble had produced ‘The Queen’s Gambit’?"

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David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
1 year 5 months ago

This is a great idea. Infusing products that are unique to the retailer into movies and television shows has been a long-standing strategy – product placement. However producing a movie that is specifically designed for driving viewers to your stores takes product placement to the next level. The biggest hurdle is the cost of producing a movie and the risk that it won’t be profitable. However it would be interesting to see a retailer try it and hopefully it will be subtle enough that it doesn’t distract from the production.

Bob Phibbs

Great insights Dave. Absolutely, in hindsight we can see the opportunities but, seriously, the Queen’s Gambit was filmed pre-pandemic. Who could predict chess sets would become the must-have during a pandemic probably two years after such licenses were sought? Let alone Barnes & Noble having the progressive marketing ability to see the opportunity. Project Runway thought they had a winner when they partnered with J.C. Penney one season – it fell flat due to limited runs and out-of-stocks. Who did this well? Amazon with their “Making the Cut” first year winner Johnny Cota. Each week the designs were available on Amazon’s site and built to order. I love the idea here but there is no surefire winner when you’re blazing a new trail.

Neil Saunders

There certainly is an opportunity here, but I think it is more realistic and appropriate for retailers to partner with content creators and to sponsor certain shows. They can then develop exclusive merchandise and selling opportunities off the back of them. Some creative retailers could initiate the ideas and then approach Netflix, et al to develop the content. However, in most cases, I think retailers producing shows and complex content is probably a step too far.

Xavier Lederer

Great point Neil, I agree. I ran a business where the founder starred in a Netflix show (and several years ago on PBS shows). Retail and producing shows are very different business: the ways to appreciate and mitigate risks are totally different, the way to fund activities is different, and so are the client base/go-to-market strategies and the key success factors. Partnering with established production players, e.g. Netflix, makes a lot of sense.

Jeff Sward

The timing of “The Queen’s Gambit” was perfect with people looking for an engaging activity that didn’t include a crowd. But the article still makes an excellent point about the opportunity to weave products and brands into a much larger story that engages customers in a manner never before contemplated. The combination of so many “how to” shows with some kind of shoppable platform could be a powerful format going forward. HSN on steroids.

Evan Snively
Evan Snively
Director of Planning & Loyalty, Moosylvania
1 year 5 months ago

Why don’t these retailers just partner with the content producers once they have proven they have worthy content on their hands? I don’t see the Barnes & Noble premise as being plausible in terms of grabbing the attention of a customer base until AFTER there was already market consensus that the content was a winner. Retail brands aligning and embedding themselves in a successful series (as opposed to a single movie or limited series) is where I would direct efforts if this is a strategy they want to pursue.

I certainly understand the premise of having more control over the storyline so it aligns with merchandise and promotions, but cult followings like Harry Potter don’t happen overnight, and they certainly don’t happen before the story has even been told.
A few brands have shown that owning content production can be done (see Red Bull), but the technical and strategic chops to make sure the investment lands is going to be too tall a task for 99 percent of them.

Rodger Buyvoets

Amazon is essentially doing this but the other way around: Amazon Prime allows loyal customers special access to Hollywood content. Amazon initially started off as an online retailer. But that’s of course their advantage: they completely dominate the digital buying space. For non-digital natives to penetrate mass-marketing like Hollywood — I’m not too sure this is within the scope of their marketing budgets. It’s more likely that brands would sponsor shows or create transmedia opportunities. But then you get the messy business of product placement. Dave is definitely right when he says that content is changing and brands need to start finding new and innovative ways to appeal to their shoppers. So with an increasing commitment to omnichannel, why not find new channels where you know customers will be entertained?

Bob Amster

I am with Neil Saunders on this one. I believe that businesses should do what they do well and get help from specialists for those things that they want to do but do not do well. Partnering with production companies is a better path – in my opinion – than producing one’s own movie or even video content.

Ricardo Belmar

Yes, there’s a great opportunity here, but do we really expect most retailers to have the creative skills to launch content that would be so wildly successful this approach would produce out-of-this-world sales? I’d suggest retailer marketing teams look to partner with content producers that have an existing track record at producing great shows and work together to develop the right merchandise. We’ve seen this done well by Amazon with their Making the Cut show. And how can Disney not already be doing this with content like The Mandalorian? The pandemic may have opened marketers’ eyes to this in retail so I expect we will see more of this going forward.

Georganne Bender

Great idea! On a smaller scale retailers have enjoyed success with in-store events based on movie and book releases. I know many indies who have benefited from Harry Potter and Twilight events. And each year Barnes & Noble holds a highly anticipated in-store Harry Potter Magical Holiday Ball where attendees come in costume.

When a retailer doesn’t have deep sponsorship pockets there is always an opportunity for creativity.

Di Di Chan

Absolutely! The opportunity is there, it can be quite rewarding, but it is risky and not easy to pull off. Retail has always been more than just selling products. Retail is a human business, and there are many exciting lives involved in the final productions. Content for retail is often carefully managed into tailored advertisement campaigns. It is vulnerable and risky to dive too much more in-depth. The risk is rejection. Many stories are not polite, proper, or politically smart. With cancel culture trending, a wrong move today will be extra costly. The opportunity is also significant. Product placement in popular shows already proves another level of marketing capabilities. Jumping from product placement into direct storytelling is the next frontier to explore. Like chess, there are so many moves that can go wrong. It takes talent, intuition, investment, and a lot of practice to pull off the Queen’s Gambit.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Many retailers are developing/cultivating great content on social media. Moving to big productions takes them out of their core competencies – partnering would be a better way to get started.

Gary Sankary

I love the idea. One of the issues that retailer are facing is the decline of audiences for traditional advertising channels. Consumers have moved in significant numbers to ad free channels like Netflix and Prime. Add in the data that shows 26 percent of internet users are using ad blocking technology across all their devices. Consumers are getting harder to reach. Retailers (along with everyone else who wants to reach consumers with product messaging) need to find new creative and engaging ways to reach audiences and get their messages out there.
Soap operas earned that name for a reason. I think sponsored content and smart ad placement will become more important as a channel going forward.

Lisa Goller

As Emmy winner Amazon Studios proves, they already do. It’s no coincidence the e-commerce icon also built a media empire.

By making the “e” in e-commerce stand for entertainment, retailers can engage us longer. When retailers embed their fun variety of media into our leisure habits, our familiarity yields lucrative loyalty and data insights. They get to know us more intimately, refine their personalized marketing and sell more.

Obvious hurdles include having the budget, bandwidth and desire to create big productions. Right now, most retailers are grappling with agility during the pandemic. Deciding on media partners or acquisitions to achieve quality content faster is another major consideration.

Less obvious hurdles include getting the right tech partners at the table at the very beginning to reduce the risks and costs of interweaving retail, tech and media.

The long game is to create a convergence strategy that blends media and e-commerce so we can buy what we see on our TVs or phones at the moment we’re watching.

Gene Detroyer

I love the idea, but in reality we have this backwards. Retailers should stay as far away from producing their own content as they can. They don’t have the skill or the resources. Let the producers come to them, or at least build some relationships so they are aware if a project might fit.

Certainly Disney knows their way around merchandising opportunities for their properties. The property leads to product. But now imagine the opposite, “Gee, we have a great merchandising gimmick here, let’s make a show!” It kind of sounds like a 1940s musical.

Scott Norris

I would watch that 1940s musical, though! (Miracle on 34th Street but with songs and dancing – come on, Macy’s!)

Shelley E. Kohan

There has always been a strong synergy between arts and fashion but we do not always experience preemptive behavior of the combined. Similar to fashion forecasting which takes into account Zeitgeist, the spirit of a generation or period of time, retailers need to be more proactive with themes in our environment. Far too often, retailers can be slow to act and end up left behind (as in the case of Barnes & Noble). A new business model should include “retail forecasting” – although none of us predicted the impact of the pandemic, some retailers have shifted quickly while others lag behind. Collaborations and partnerships are the way to go in terms of crossing between art and fashion.

Kathleen Fischer

Interesting idea, especially as it becomes more challenging to break through the clutter to reach your audience. Because of the tremendous costs to produce Hollywood-style content, I would see partnerships among a few retailers potentially being a more attractive option.

Cathy Hotka

I’ll be the contrarian here — I have a hard time imagining a retail company asking the Board of Directors for money to make a television show which may or may not be successful. Change my mind!

Joan Treistman
I agree with those who favor partnering over taking it all on. While creating successful films and shows is daunting and not for the feint of heart or those with limited purses, placing that big of a bet on a product makes the odds even worse. In the ’70s my late husband developed, manufactured and promoted a unique chess game (Quadra Chess) that could be all the rage now. But it wasn’t successful for various retail, manufacturing and product reasons. In the last few years chess has seen more engagement, even before The Queen’s Gambit and the pandemic. However playing chess on a computer gives access to everyone. Selling the last of the left-over games from my husband’s intended gambit occurred decades after the game was produced and was applauded by Russian chess masters. I’m curious as to why there appears to be some websites offering the original game. LOL, I still have several originals from the ’70s. As another side note Barnes & Noble had chess masters playing Quadra Chess in their store windows.
Ryan Mathews

Before we rush off into product placement Nirvana, let’s take a breath. First of all, chess boards are typically not six feet deep so it would be tough to have person-to-person play at the same time “The Queen’s Gambit” aired. Also, as Barnes & Noble has proven, games are not their sweet spot. They are in the book business, not the content production and/or manufacturing or distribution business. One could go on and on about the possibilities of product placement and some companies like the Food Network seem to make it work — to a degree. But since retailers are not in the content production business, there would be a significant added cost associated with sourcing. It’s tough to balance when your a Barnes & Noble, for example, and already in a margin slicing battle with Amazon.

Doug Garnett

I don’t see any opportunity here — at least none that is significant.

Had Barnes & Noble produced The Queen’s Gambit as discussed above, the show would have been far less interesting because integrating all the paid placement changes the quality of the entertainment.

Retailers need to be very careful with this idea. Creating a successful show is extraordinarily difficult. The failure rate is massive — but we only see the successes.

Many shows requires years of development — retailers cannot afford to make a commitment years in advance for a show which has only a 1 in 1,000 chance of being highly popular.

Matthew Pavich

Love the idea and the topic! Retail is all about finding ways to meet consumer demands profitably and one element of that is generating the demand in the first place. As others have noted, there is precedence here with Disney and Amazon (not to mention the product placement that is everywhere in Hollywood).

It really comes down to core capabilities and making sure that the right partnerships are in place to make it effective. Retail executives are not producers and vice-versa. People want to be inspired and great shows/movies can achieve that if they aren’t too overt in their sales message. One short-term solution is simply funding the right shows/movies that could lead to a mutually beneficial outcome.

Warren Thayer

To quote John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”

Shep Hyken

Reverse vision is 20/20. Sure, it is nice to have a hit TV show. But the cost of producing that show is high. The chance that it will be a mega-hit, as “The Queen’s Gambit” was? Pretty small. Retailers can create YouTube shows that are reasonable to produce. If it takes off and goes viral, there will be some Hollywood type waiting in the wings to offer the retailer a contract.

Karen Wong

The idea of retail as entertainment is compelling but given the cost of long-format content, I would lean more towards TikTok-like content or even livestreaming as they do in China to leverage the power of engaging media.

Mel Kleiman

My first thought as I read this was way out, but as you think about it makes good sense. Just look what Hallmark has done with the Hallmark channel. It has become its own profit center.

"Interesting idea, especially as it becomes more challenging to break through the clutter to reach your audience."
"There has always been a strong synergy between arts and fashion but we do not always experience preemptive behavior of the combined."
"To quote John McEnroe, “You cannot be serious!”"

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