Sinclair's marketing was highly
effective when it worked, but it can hardly be denied that
he made some significant mistakes - mistakes which certainly
cost the company money and goodwill, and perhaps doomed it
in the end.
Most obviously (and notoriously), Sinclair gained a reputation
for advertising products before they were ready to ship or
before there were enough to satisfy the demand. This problem
recurred repeatedly in the 1970s and 1980s, as many Spectrum
owners will recall - wags claimed that "QL"
stood for "Quite Late." Manufacturing problems were
sometimes to blame but the commonest reason cited by the company
itself was that demand was unexpectedly high. For this to
happen once would have been understandable, but it was a recurrent
problem. This suggests that Sinclair was serially deficient
in anticipating the demand and taking steps to ensure that
production could be ramped up to meet it.
Sinclair's advertisements were also occasionally guilty of
over-hyping the products. Looking back at some of the 1970s
adverts for audio
products, it seems unlikely that they would have
been acceptable to the standards authorities in today's much
stricter advertising environment. The company's electronics
kits were certainly cheap, but their quality and performance
were often not quite at the level stated in the adverts -
for instance, amplifiers with a quoted maximum output level
at which they could certainly be run, but which would make
them burn out after a few hours.
Was bad marketing implicated in Sinclair's two most notorious
failures, the Black
Watch and C5?
Probably not in the case of the Black Watch; the idea was
good enough but the implementation was what let Sinclair down.
But marketing certainly does appear to have been a problem
with the C5. The nature of the product itself - a small open-topped
electric tricycle - was a peculiar choice for Britain's rainy
climate and congested, cycle-hostile roads. It was positively
bizarre and simply not credible to promote the C5 as a "car."
The C5 was so far different from a regular vehicle in its
appearance and utility that describing it as a car required
a virtual redefinition of the meaning of the word. And as
people asked at the time, what practical use was the C5? It
could not carry passengers or any significant amount of luggage,
as it only had a very small storage compartment. Its small
range meant that it could not travel any significant distance,
and its low speed meant that it would not get to its destination
very fast anyway. In short, the C5 was so flawed in so many
practical ways that one has to wonder what market testing
- if any - Sinclair conducted before the company was committed
to the product.
In fact, it may well be the case that Sinclair did not conduct
any market testing. Reportedly, he doesn't believe in it,
instead preferring to find new niches - a conviction businessman,
one might say. Leading by instinct is not necessarily a bad
thing; it served Sinclair well in the pocket calculator and
home computer markets, where his cheap and simple products
defied all conventional expectations at the time and became
huge successes. Looking back in hindsight, though, Sinclair's
moves into the calculator and computer markets made sense
in a way that the C5 did not. In the first two cases, Sinclair
created cheap and usable versions of highly desirable but
costly and bulky items. The utility of a pocket calculator
and a home computer are obvious, and Sinclair's design team
was clever enough to produce devices which were highly versatile
in spite of the technical compromises forced by the cheap
components. The C5 presented an entirely different scenario.
Electric vehicles were costly and bulky, but they were not
(nor are they now) highly desirable items, nor is there a
pent-up demand for them in the same was as there was for computers
or calculators. The C5 was cheap enough, but the design team
failed to deliver enough utility to make it truly useful;
its design flaws and lack of an obvious mass market doomed
it before it was even launched.
It's arguable that Sinclair's biggest marketing mistake related
not to the C5 but, paradoxically, to his most successful products,
Spectrum. One might well argue "some mistake"
- after all, both the company and the man himself made a fortune
from the computers' huge success. But had it not been for
some quite baffling omissions in marketing, they could have
made a fortune several times over. Sinclair's adverts tell
the story quite well by themselves. The ZX81 and ZX Spectrum
are consistently sold as an educational or productivity tool.
For instance, some of the adverts show a devoted father teaching
his son the basic of computer in front of a ZX81; they speak
of the "more sophisticated ZX Software" such as
the "Business and Household management systems."
Sinclair peripherals are described in similarly worthy terms
- the ZX Printer is useful for "a hard copy of your program
listings" and the Microdrive and Interface 1 are mass
storage and networking tools useful for a school network.
All this was true, up to a point. But the reality was that
while Sinclair was promoting the wonders of databases and
word processing on the Spectrum, millions of Spectrum owners
were playing Jet Set Willy.
Today, the Spectrum is best remembered as a games platform.
Within not much more than a year of its launch, it was already
obvious that most users were using the machine mostly to play
games. Yet, strangely, Sinclair seems to have been uneasy
about this use of his product. Sinclair User alluded
to this in a 1985 interview with Sinclair in which he mentioned
his disappointment with the gap between his expectations and
the reality of the 1980s, an era in which (as the magazine
put it) "we've all got computers and we're playing Jet
Sinclair's heart clearly was not in the games market, despite
its lucrativeness. The company produced only a few half-hearted
gestures, such as the relatively unsuccessful Interface 2
with its non-standard joystick ports, and the small range
of games software produced for the company by Psion. There
was also a marked reluctance to adopt conventional methods
data storage, with Sinclair developing the ingenious but relatively
little-used Microdrive rather than tape or disk storage. Others
rushed in to fill the gap left by Sinclair: Kempston with
its ubiquitous joystick interfaces, any number of companies
with joysticks, WH Smith with its "datacorders"
(actually re-labeled Far Eastern cassette recorders), DK'tronics
with typewriter-style keyboards and so on. Sinclair would
certainly have made a lot more money if it had produced a
wider range of officially badged peripherals, or released
a Spectrum with a proper keyboard rather than the idiosyncratic
rubber mats used in the 16/48K Spectrums, Spectrum+ and Spectrum
What accounted for Sinclair's apparent lack of interest?
Sinclair seems to have been personally unwilling to sell the
Spectrum as a games machine - he reportedly refused to allow
the QL's games-playing capabilities to be publicised. The
Spectrum was instead pitched consistently as an educational
tool, a matter which was clearly of considerable personal
importance to Sinclair. In the event, the educational market
went almost exclusively to Acorn (courtesy of the BBC Micro
contract, the loss of which greatly angered Sinclair). The
entertainment market came to be dominated by a triumvirate
of Sinclair, Commodore and Amstrad, in that order - roughly
a 40%/30%/20% split by 1986. This was all the more remarkable
considering that the other two companies publicised their
machines' games capabilities while Sinclair did not. The contrast
with Amstrad in particular could not have been greater. Within
months of acquiring Sinclair, it announced the gamesplayer-friendly
Spectrum +2 with integrated tape recorder, joystick ports
and proper keyboard. The difference in marketing strategies
was graphically demonstrated by Amstrad's adverts for the
Spectrum +2 (257 Kb) and +3 (254 Kb), which publicised its
capabilities as a games machine and ensured the Spectrum's
survival for another few years.
Another factor may have been Sinclair's desire to move on
from the Spectrum. Former colleagues have noted his nomadic
behaviour on the marketplace, moving on from one product to
the next as his interest waxes and wanes. It's arguable that
the Spectrum was actually peripheral to his main interests,
the pocket TV and C5, despite its enormous success. It's very
likely that neither the pocket TV nor the C5 would have appeared
at all had it not been for the profits from the Spectrum -
a very typical Sinclair approach, financing the next product
line from the proceeds on the last.