The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Month: May 2010

How Quaker Steak and Lube Hypes the Triple Atomic Wing

Punishing heat on a wing

Punishing heat on a wing

Quaker Steak and Lube (Twitter @TheOfficialQSL), for those not from Pittsburgh, is a restaurant known far and wide for their amazingly awesome wings. With more than 21 sauces that range from the tasty (ranch) to the ridiculously hot (Atomic), they’ve earned their reputation as “Best Wings USA”. The restaurant has even been featured on Man vs. Food, where the host ate the Atomic wings in its Pittsburgh episode (see link here).

Most recently, Quaker Steak and Lube added the Triple Atomic wing to its menu, a sauce that is more than three times hotter than its regular Atomic sauce (hence the name). How is this determined? The Scoville scale, which is widely accepted as the scale by which peppers are judged. To provide some context, the Triple Atomic wing is at the same level (5,000,000 Scoville Heat Units) as law enforcement-grade pepper spray.

Pain in an egg carton

Agony in an egg carton

A cousin was visiting from Philly and expressed some interest in tackling the Triple Atomic wings. He’s had a painfully hot Man vs. Food find before and decided that he would regret not achieving a second. Not only was it interesting to watch him eat the chicken wings of pain, but it turned out to be a great lesson in experiential marketing. Here’s how:

The Waiver
When you first order ’em, the waitstaff gives instructions and tells you all of the things they have to (your arms can blister?) “as required by law”. I’m absolutely sure that they’re trained to believe that there is some legal risk in selling these wings without some warning. In addition, the person eating the wings is required to sign a waiver. Reading reviews of other restaurants with similarly hot wings (many of which also require patrons to sign a waiver) seemed to indicate that the waiver was simply a publicity stunt. I don’t know for sure, but my hunch is that it’s more for hype.

The Presentation
The six wings come in an egg carton presented by an employee dressed in a mock hazmat suit complete with a hood and blinking head lamp. Not only does it ratchet up the stress, it also alerts nearly everyone in the restaurant to the fact that you’re going to be giving ’em a shot. The waitstaff then runs down the dangers/suggestions once again. A few glasses of water come to your table, then you’re on your own.

Eating the Wings
Everyone seems to be staring and a few are cheering on. There’s a lot of eye-watering and sweating involved. My cousin gave a GREAT play-by-play. In short, they hurt really, really bad.

The Trophy
My uncle taught me that every achievement should come with a trophy and these wings are no different. Polishing off the six Triple Atomic wings (without getting up to go to the restroom or any other cheating) nets a nicely-designed black t-shirt and a special place on the Atomic Wall of Fame. As insignificant as it might seem, it seems to be a satisfying conclusion to a painful process.

So, why is this great marketing? Because it creates a story for all participants. For those daring enough to take on the gastronomic challenge, it’s an experience that is told and retold, which helps to build a ton of brand equity at no cost. This has a direct impact on the bottom line by way of both top-line revenue growth and marketing expenditures — our server mentioned unprompted that the owners spend very little on advertising and the restaurant is still full almost every night. It even got the place on a popular food show, which is essentially a free commercial for the restaurant. This is a great example of how customer experience, storytelling and myths can build strong brand equity at negligible cost compared to more traditional interruption marketing channels.

31 Things I Wish I’d Known About Dating When I Was 21, the Guy Version

So, I saw a post from @bosikowicz (that might be harder than Ciuksza) linking to this article called 31 Things I Wish I’d Known About Dating When I was 21 by a blogger over at I’ll admit to being a bit nervous throwing a rock at this hornet’s nest, especially since it’s against what would likely be considered my “personal brand”. I guess “showing a little leg” in the personal sense can’t hurt too badly, right? So here’s my list of 31 (my favorite number).

  1. The first date is one of the most painful experiences you can face. I forget who said it, but there’s a quote that’s roughly, “women are weird about food and men are weird about money, so why do we go on dates where we eat out and then fight about the check?” Do something different.
  2. Going out for coffee means an informal conversation because she can’t figure you out yet and wants an out if it doesn’t work. Being welcomed in for coffee means something completely different and is full of land mines. Be ultra-careful if the first leads to the second on the first try.
  3. You never know what you’re getting into once you’re “official”. I once said that “looking for love is the process by which you attempt to find the kind of crazy you can handle”, and little in my life has shown me otherwise.
  4. I should have come up with rote answers to the question “what are you thinking?” earlier. The answer is likely either “nothing” or something she’d rather not know … having a quick response to lean on helps. Otherwise they’re never satisfied.
  5. She’s always better looking. That’s fact (my profile picture suggests that it’s not that hard to do). And it needs to be acknowledged. Often.
  6. Little clues pop up from time to time (favorite ice cream or band or childhood memory). Get really good at keeping a mental database of those things — they might bail you out of a jam or score brownie points.
  7. Do your best to forget #6 when the relationship ends or you’ll drive yourself mad.
  8. Accept that sometimes she’s going to out-do you (a birthday gift, a thoughtful gesture). Don’t compete. Competition moves a gesture from the sincere box to the “have-to” box and no one wants to be a requirement.
  9. Get to know her parents. Not because you need to be aligned in some way (thought it helps) but because it helps you to know her better.
  10. You’ll never understand. Accept it and move on.
  11. While it’s inevitable, do your best to avoid taking for granted that she’ll be there. No matter how busy you are, it’s not too hard to remember to thank her for simply being in your universe.
  12. Admit when you’re not ready and let go. It’s the most painful decision you can make, but also the most fair.
  13. Take a walk down the “feminine hygiene aisle” when you’re by yourself as exposure therapy for when you’re called on to make an emergency Giant Eagle run for supplies.
  14. Keep an eye out for drama. If she says, “drama follows me”, it is almost universally of her own making. You probably can’t handle it. Run.
  15. Converse to the aforementioned link’s #21, don’t try to be a friend when you don’t want to be just friends. Spell it out. If it’s not there, it’s not there. You might have your shots, but you shouldn’t follow her around like a puppy.
  16. Roses are losing their luster since no one likes a cliche. Pick something that compliments her favorite color scheme and you win for both the flowers and being thoughtful. If she notices in the process that you happened to get her favorite flower, take credit even if you didn’t know it. Never let the truth get in the way of a good gesture.
  17. Appreciate that she has passions even if you don’t get them. And accept that she’ll never treasure all the things you do (I have a prized autographed print signed by Clyde W. Tombaugh. No clue? Exactly.). Maybe it’s just me, but there’s nothing hotter than a woman genuinely excited about something.
  18. Accept her vanity. It exists and you’ll never understand. Appreciate that she cares about her and leave it at that. In addition, never go into Sephora (see previous post) and use the boyfriend chairs (the chairs and couches made for men who have been taken on exhausting shopping trips) whenever possible.
  19. Establish early on that you’ll never offer an opinion on any of the three following topics: her weight; her family; or her friends. That whole “bearing false witness is a sin” thing is proof that God never had a girlfriend.
  20. You’re never as smart/attractive/fun as she says you are. It’s ok. Appreciate that she’s boosting your confidence and leave it there. I don’t care how rich Donald Trump is, some wife at some point said his hair looks good.
  21. There are days where you each need to clean, do laundry, pay the bills, wash the dishes and other mundane activities. Not everything is an exciting whirlwind of bliss. The better you are at accepting this, the better you’ll be at being in a relationship.
  22. If you’re getting her a practical gift, always pair it with something fun (but not necessarily vice versa). Practical kills whimsy and, by extension, the spark.
  23. By extension of #21 and #22, experience new, exciting and challenging things together. Study after study says this is what makes it all work.
  24. Hunt. I’ve been told by every woman I know that you have to chase. It doesn’t matter if you’re a nice little conservative Catholic boy, you have to show interest and show you’re willing to pursue. It’s not being disrespectful to say, “I think you’re really attractive and smart and would love to get to know you better.”
  25. There are subtle clues to know when she’s testing you. Let it go in the beginning because we all have our walls. Don’t let it go on forever — trust is incredibly important and if she can’t trust you, it’s simply never going to work.
  26. Men and women see conflicts differently. Women have two categories: things she’s not upset about; and things that she is upset about and needs to discuss. Men have three: things we’re not upset about (a considerable majority); things we are upset about and need to discuss (these are usually things connected with a felony she committed); or things that we’re bothered by but realize it’s not worth discussing. The third category has a multitude of reasons — maybe she’ll bring it up in a passive-aggressive way later or maybe the conversation will last forever and you don’t have the patience at the moment. That third category is also where resentment lives. The more stuff in category three, the more you’ll resent her and the less likely you’ll be able to stand another five minutes in her presence.
  27. It’s a whole lot of work but it has to be fun. If it’s not fun, especially in the beginning, try not to pull a hamstring while running away from the situation as fast as you possibly can.
  28. I’m a flirt. I flirt with old ladies and waitresses and bank tellers and the checkout woman at Rite Aid. Know the boundaries. Be yourself, but be sensitive, too. It’s easy to cross the line into “disrespectful” territory.
  29. You’ll catch yourself thinking about someone else. She does it, too. It’s not a threat, it’s human. As long as you know that you’ll be with each other in the end, it’s not worth freaking out over.
  30. Don’t ask about past relationships, don’t Facebook stalk and don’t read her text messages. If there’s a question in your mind, ask her. In the end, you really don’t want to know how she got to where she is, just that she’s who she is today.
  31. A bad relationship is never better than being single. Never. Ever. Never ever. You can’t let inertia be the only force in your relationship. While it’s never happened to me, I’ve seen it happen to others and it usually ends in having to split your assets in half.

Well, we’ll see how my first real foray into the “human” side goes. I welcome comments and rebuttals.

Boo Not Voting! Hooray Beer!

Voting They<br /> Can Believe In

Voting They Can Believe In

Research suggests that we vote not for an explicit effect on an election (most data suggests that larger-scale elections are minimally affected by an individual vote) but rather for an intrinsic reason (duty, a sense of having a “voice”, etc.).  Even in the wake of the last presidential election, where youth turnout was cited as one of the major reasons Barack Obama was elected, turnout amongst 18-to-24-year-olds didn’t exceed 18%, truly abysmal numbers.

Apparently, the U.S. isn’t alone. The Czech Republic seems to have a challenge with getting young people to vote (not true for the overall population, which is competitive with the U.S. in voter turnout in their last presidential election, hovering around 65%). Like their youthful counterparts in the U.S., young Czechs feel that the process isn’t worth their time. So, how to get the youth of the Czech Republic?

In a WSJ Article today, The Stanislav Bernard brewer (its owner is a former candidate) is offering free beer to young people who vote in the country’s upcoming election. Citing the “near-steady stream of domestic political infighting, corruption scandals and mudslinging” as reasons why the country’s youth don’t regularly vote, Mr. Bernard believes that their participation is critical to democracy. So, his offer is simple: classes at college preparatories that get at least 85% of students to sign a declaration to vote win a free keg, and the first 1,000 students to sign the declaration win a free case of beer.

A former (and potentially future) candidate hit for the cycle with this stunt — he’s getting massive world-wide publicity for his beer, he’s supporting a noble cause and he’s raising his profile amongst a potential future voting bloc. In a country that consumes a massive amount of beer (about 320 pints annually), this seems to be a surefire way to sell beer AND democracy. Who can’t drink to that?

Can Premium Save Print?

Post-Gazette's Hope

Post-Gazette's Hope

Since at least 1996, I have been reading news sources online, usually the New York Times for general news and the Post-Gazette for Pittsburgh-related news (especially for Pittsburgh sports coverage, which wasn’t easy to get in Texas). In a span of 14 years, I’ve spent countless hours reading content online (either through a standard browser or my Blackberry), giving only my passive attention to ads. In that time, I can likely count on two hands the number of times I’ve purchased a newspaper, usually because a friend was in it or there was a major event that warranted saving the print edition. The stats — 14 years and 10 papers. In other words, I’m exactly the example of why there are so many challenges in the newspaper industry.

Pittsburgh<br /> Baseball Club

As a member of the painfully masochistic group known as Pirates fans, I read the various articles about the team published in the Post-Gazette. I’m a particular fan of Dejan Kovacevic, the Penguins-turned-Pirates beat writer for the P-G, and I enjoyed his PBC Blog when it was hosted at the main site. I was also thankful that his blog remained membership-free even as other blogs and sports insights moved to the recently-launched PG+, a paid ($3.99/mo) site that has more in-depth coverage and interactive conversation than the main newspaper. However, I knew it was only a matter of time that his daily insights would be moved behind the firewall and I’d likely limit my reading to what information was freely available.

The announcement that the blog would be moved to PG+ was made in April and finalized in early May. In the process, something made me decide to give the paid site a shot, so I ponied up the $3.99 to test it out for the month. Not only have I read Dejan’s work, but the other blogs that run the gamut from sports to local politics as well. I’ve found value in it and will likely subscribe for the year ($2.99 if you pre-pay for 12 months).

From my experience, the so-called ‘freemium’ model seems to be working for the P-G. Why? Because there’s genuine value to the experience. While superficial sports coverage and local news can be had easily and for free, the type of in-depth information that their paid site provides is well-worth the $4/month. In addition, I’m beginning to feel a sense of responsibility to the newspaper industry — like public radio, I know that these media are needed in a strong, well-informed democratic society (an interesting article suggested anecdotal evidence that the decline of the newspaper industry is having some impact on campaigns). While I think as much information as possible should be free, I have come to terms with the fact that I need to contribute my share.

Like my earlier “buy me a beer” post, the $4 seems like a bargain for the type of information I get. So, will premium save print? Is there enough truly premium content out there for newspapers to get people to buy? At what point does the industry go the Detroit Free Press route and focus more on their online presence than their print edition? And, based upon the low tolerance for paid information online, what price makes it profitable enough for newspapers to give us the kind of important information we need?

Sephora is One Scary Place

Scarier than the boogeyman

Scarier than the boogeyman

I love the National Geographic Channel and its focus on wildlife. For some reason, I’m particularly drawn to how different species choose mates and the lengths to which they will go, from the plumes of feathers on a peacock to the amount of light a firefly will use to attract the opposite sex. I’m even more fascinated by the sheer number of similarities between us humans and the animal kingdom.

On a recent trip to Ross Park Mall, a female friend dragged me into Sephora for a time she described as “quickly”, which made me realize that the she might not know the definition of the term. While initially nerve-wracking, I decided to make this my own personal National Geographic special, using the experience to analyze how products were packaged and displayed, how lower-end products compared to premium products and what design theories were used to appeal to women. While I started in an area with a bunch of boxes and bottles, I ended up in a section with various items that resembled miniature lawn equipment, much of which made me realize that I am much less likely to injure myself using a table saw than an eyelash curler (Really? An Eyelash Curler? That’s necessary why?).

The entire experience went from fascinating to traumatizing when I came upon a box with this grooming machine that included three different attachments. I looked at the first one, which looked much like the trimmer you’d find on the back of an electric razor — that’s not so bad. Next down was a tool that looked just like an electric razor with little holes to cut hair — that was just a mini Norelco razor. Finally, I got to this dangerous shark-toothed looking thing. I looked at it, tilted my head like a beagle hearing a harmonica for the first time, and tried to figure out what the hell an “epilator” was. Then it hit me. Completely by reaction, I hunched over a little bit and protected certain areas of my anatomy, subconsciously afraid that the damn thing would jump out of and attack my nether regions. I also made a very loud oomph/ouch sound, causing my friend and two sales associated to run over to make sure I was ok. They found me standing there, completely blown away that anyone would use such a disturbing device. While they were laughing, I was still in shock. I believe I’m now one of the first diagnosed cases of epilatorphobia.

The lesson learned, beyond the fact that I will never feel entirely safe being in the same room as that devil machine, is that men and women really do have completely different shopping experiences and expectations. There was a shocking amount of white used in graphic design, as well as pastels (compared to the blues/browns/darker neutrals found in men’s products). I also saw a loose correlation between product shape and price — the more unique and feminine the shape of the bottle, the higher premium on the product. Another observation involved typography — while men’s products usually feature bold/black fonts, most of the products in Sephora used type that was thin or ultra-thin. Finally, I realized the motivation women have to achieve beauty is beyond what I had ever expected before (I’m an only child with a decidedly non-girly mom who has usually dated women who could get ready in 20 minutes or less). The point? For this category of woman, appeal to the need to be beautiful, make the packaging as much of an experience as possible, market the product in a way that it feels luxurious and price it such that the product feels rare (now with “hydrokryptocyanide!”) rather than eerily similar to what is in a Suave bottle in Giant Eagle. While it is a very crowded market, there seems to be a niche for a multitude of similar products — invoke those feelings of beauty and exclusivity, and you’ll carve out a niche.

Hey Man, Just Buy Me a Beer

Like it? Buy me a beer!

Like it? Buy me a beer!

My Blackberry and I are usually inseparable, like a boy and his dog, though I’m not quite a boy and I don’t have to feed or clean up after my phone (training it is another story). For whatever reason, I’ve been losing it recently, leaving my BB Tour in places that were frustratingly difficult to remember. In a fit of frustration last night, I did a quick Google search and found, a website that rings your cell phone until you find it. It worked like a charm and I was quickly calmed (in case you were wondering, it was found behind a seat cushion on the couch).

When I returned to my computer , I saw the little message in the middle of the screen where the guy asked for a beer in return for building a useful tool. He didn’t want a donation or a hand out, just a little show of thanks that any beer-loving person would want. If I lost my phone in a bar and this guy found it, I’d absolutely buy him a beer right then and there. Why not now? A few clicks later, my beer was sent to him via PayPal.

I thought this was a fantastic way of getting people to voluntarily pay for a free service. I read a lot of different publications every day and rarely click on an ad link, so I know I’m not one of those valuable pair of eyeballs so often touted by websites that aim to be ad-supported. But what if my favorite author, blogger or sportswriter asked me to buy him or her a beer? Absolutely. That’s a reward (pricing structure) that makes sense to me, and I’d jump at the chance. In beer culture, there’s no greater compliment.

Chegg and the Art of the Freebie

Free Prize Inside!

Free Prize Inside!

If you’ve not heard of Chegg (you probably haven’t unless you’re in school), it is a pioneer in textbooks, enabling students to rent their books for a period of time, usually a semester, at a fraction of the cost of buying. They make the process ridiculously simple and shipping both ways is free. They even plant a tree in your name, allowing you to choose one of three locations. In my three semesters in grad school, I’ve gone to the Chegg site, found my books, entered in my credit card info, and had them two days later.

What separates Chegg? A slap bracelet and a beer coozie.

You see, my second shipment came with a slap bracelet, a fun little toy that took me back to middle school when we were buying them in all sorts of colors and prints until a few kids ruined the fun by injuring themselves, leading to bans in schools across the country. It was a great surprise and totally unexpected, something along the lines of getting a toy in the bottom of a Cap’n Crunch box. I thought it a great example of creating value for the customer inexpensively (large quantities are about $.50/each) by bringing a little fun to what would otherwise be considered a run-of-the-mill online purchase. And the beer coozie? That was in my summer term’s box o’ books.

What’s the result? I’ve told my fellow B-School friends about Chegg and I’ve given them a few shout-outs on Twitter. And now I’m writing about their great service and little surprises on my blog. At roughly $.50 an order, they’ve secured a customer (me) that will likely use their service for the rest of my graduate studies and earned a whole lot of word-of-mouth. Any marketing exec would love to have that kind of ROI.