January 1, 2007
Will Shortz: Cult Brand
In preparation for a flight last week, I was looking to find a puzzles book that could easily occupy my time for a few hours. Since the new craze is Sudoku, I of course caved into the public hysteria and looked for a book that was perfect for my skill level.
It was hard to avoid one particular brand - that of Will Shortz’s name on the cover - which had filled at least 4 shelves worth. For those game aficionados out there, Will Shortz is a brand name akin to Superman. For those who aren’t familiar, Will Shortz is the New York Times Crossword Puzzles editor.
Will Shortz has had a huge following since he took the post in 1993, mainly because he re-enlivened the crossword puzzle, breaking a few rules and adding a certain wit to it.
As recently as this summer, his popularity reached a new level with Wordplay, a documentary focusing on Mr. Shortz and on the lives of New York Times crossword devotees, including Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, and Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina.
He has become, in many ways, a cult figure. Or better still, a cult brand.
How we define this kind of brand is best articulated by Bob Dowly in a recent Business Week article called Rise of the Cult Brand. Dowly holds that a cult brand inspires consumers to continue their devotion to the product beyond purchase by proselytizing its brand to their friends, building websites about it, attending events, and proclaiming their status as a proud user.
Mr. Shortz indeed satisfies these criteria. In addition to Wordplay, he has an NPR show; he hosts an annual Crossword tournament in Stamford, CT; and now he is associated with a new brand of Sudoku books that has expanded to 50+ volumes in total in just 2 years.
St. Martin’s Press - the publisher of Will Shortz’s Sudoku books - has done something smart. By putting his imprimatur on the cover, they are capitalizing on his fan base and encouraging them to break their brand loyalty to the crossword and shifting it to (or at least sharing it with) Sudoku.
This has already paid off - his book, Sudoku Easy Presented by Will Shortz, Vol. 1, was the 13th best selling trade paperback of 2005...and that was before the documentary came out.
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