Finding business lessons in unexpected places

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I tend to drive my family crazy with little lessons about economics and business found in everyday life.

For example, mention a state during a conversation, and chances are pretty good that I’ll point out what the state’s taxes look like, and whether it’s a friendly or unfriendly place for business.

And given that I’ve been teaching MBA classes as an adjunct professor for four years and writing weekly newspaper columns for a decade and a half, I’m always surveying popular culture to find examples that can serve as tools to teach or communicate interesting points.

Take Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 film “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” which starred Jeff Bridges as automobile entrepreneur Preston Tucker. Putting aside the debate over the film’s historical accuracy, no other movie in my experience better captures the spirit of entrepreneurship, or many of the challenges faced by those looking to start up new businesses.

Fun and successful examples of brand extension, as well as cross merchandising, can be found courtesy of the ABC’s “Castle.” In this clever and amusing television show, Nathan Fillion plays a mystery novelist, Richard Castle, who follows around a police detective — Kate Beckett played by Stana Katic — for research purposes. But the two develop a relationship, and work together to solve murders.

In terms of brand extension, three novels have been published with “Richard Castle” as the author — Heat Wave, Naked Heat and the just-published Heat Rises. A graphic novel also was released in September titled Richard Castle’s Deadly Storm: A Derrick Storm Mystery. The books offer bios on and acknowledgements from the fictional Castle author, while the television show plays up the release of the books. It’s an ingenious extension of the “Castle” brand.

For good measure, a recent episode of the show featured a killer dressing up like a superhero. That allowed Castle to bring his love of comic books into the mystery-solving process, highlighting various Marvel Comics heroes. It just so happens that Marvel and ABC are both owned by the Walt Disney Company. Now that’s adroit cross merchandising.

But such efforts must be done so that the audience appreciates and enjoys the effort, rather than being annoyed. The “Castle” efforts have worked quite well, as illustrated by the fact that the TV show has good ratings and the new book Heat Rises ranks as a best seller.

My pursuit of mining the culture for business lessons led to my latest book titled “Chuck” vs. the Business World: Business Tips on TV. NBC’s “Chuck” television show is about a nerdy guy named Chuck, played by Zachary Levi, who is in a dead end job in a big electronics store called the Buy More. He gets a computer with government secret mistakenly implanted in his brain, and winds up going on missions with his CIA and NSA partners, while still working at the Buy More as a cover.

As I watched each episode, it occurred to me that among the many funny scenes, especially in the Buy More, a wealth of lessons for your career and managing a business could be found. In particular, there were lots of examples of what not to do in the workplace. And as illustrated by business case study literature, bad decisions and failure are just as powerful teaching tools as is success.

The “Chuck” show serves up advice and lessons on a wide array of topics, including trust in the workplace, customer service, technology, leadership, hiring and firing, business plans and sales strategies.

But beyond the story lines, “Chuck” is also worth noting for how it has engaged both viewers and advertisers to fend off cancellation.

First, the show is big on product placements, including Subway, Honda and Tide. An August 16, 2011, Wall Street Journal report noted that viewers generally prefer product placements over television ads. Testing reactions to digital placement, according to Mark Popkiewicz, CEO of MirriAd, “proved surprising. ‘They don’t want commercials, they don’t want pre-rolls, they don’t want overlays. Given the choice, the majority prefer placement to commercial breaks. From a broadcasters point of view that is a huge plus. It gives them far more inventory to sell without a penalty to the consumer or the audience.’”

Second, fan campaigns played big roles in getting the show renewed. In 2009, it was an effort directed at Subway as a “Chuck” advertiser. When fans bought sandwiches at Subway, they left pro-”Chuck” notes in suggestion boxes. Earlier this year, it was a Twitter campaign directed at advertisers, thanking them for supporting “Chuck.” These fan campaigns communicated important information to television networks and producers.

The “Chuck” case argues that when creating, funding, producing, and renewing television series, it should not only be about ratings, but also about who is watching, where and when they are watching, and the intensity of interest. Ironically, while the Buy More in “Chuck” serves up lots of examples of bad business decision-making, “Chuck” itself has offered some positives on how a television business venture is able to continue by more completely engaging advertisers and viewers.

Business tips on TV? Who knew? Well…

Raymond J. Keating is the chief economist for the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council. His new book — “Chuck” vs. the Business World: Business Tips on TV — has just been published.