Book Review: The Box

I’m trying out something new here: book reviews.  No, I don’t intend to gun for Michiko Kakutani’s job.  Rather, I can’t help but draw parallels between what I read and what I do.

So let’s begin with the only book I’ve ever read to devote an entire chapter, and then some, to setting dimensional and material standards for shipping containers.


Hey, this was a major plot point for Season Two of “The Wire!”

Marc Levinson’s The Box  covers the roughly half-century in which the hidebound world of ocean shipping transformed from rugged stevedores placing each and every carton in the hold of a freighter by hand to the current era where nearly all shipping except bulk commodities and motor vehicles takes place in a metal container moved by giant cranes.  While the topic only indirectly broaches marketing, it has important ideas for marketers nevertheless.

While hardly the stuff of Two Years Before the Mast or NostromoThe Box offers its own nautical drama.  Most notably, shipping costs declined drastically, although the exact numbers remain shrouded in mystery due to surprisingly shoddy record-keeping by shipping companies.

On their own, lower shipping costs represented a win for most consumers in terms of lower overall prices.  However, they also begat an entirely new global economy while destroying most local communities of longshore labor.  As shipping costs dwindled, manufacturers could set up shop almost anywhere.  Unsurprisingly, they often chose to do so in the cheapest labor markets possible.  Container shipping also begat the global supply chain.  With cheap and reliable shipping the norm, Mattel (for example), could assemble Barbie dolls in China with hair from Thailand, clothes from Vietnam and skin pigments from the US.

Despite the container’s impact on global shipping, I think the lesson for the marketer lies in the origin of the container itself.  Shippers had realized for decades that moving boxes from wagon, truck or train to ship and back represented a major labor cost.  As early as the 19th century, some shippers had experimented with putting boxes or even entire wagons (later, truck trailers) on ships.  However, these efforts failed due to failures to standardize practices across land and sea shippers.

Enter Malcolm McLean (no, not this guy), an ambitious trucking entrepreneur from North Carolina who built the massive shipping company Sea-Land.  He traced the company’s genesis to his days as a truck driver in the 1930s, waiting in his rig for a ship to unload at a pier in Jersey City (not quite true, according to the book, but a good founding myth at any rate).

Most relevant for marketers, McLean didn’t stop at articulating a frankly old idea of shipping big boxes rather than little ones.  He went the distance.  Not only did he and his engineers envision the box, they also thought about the boxes would fit into racks on ships (he retrofitted old military supply ships from WWII in the 1950s), how the boxes would attach to trailers and even how the boxes would nestle one on top of another.  His thinking extended to box dimensions and even the the corrugated exterior (which enhanced fuel economy!).

These ideas balanced breakthrough thinking along with practical necessities such as state highway weight and length regulations for trucks and interior dimensions of ships.  And, over time, many of these plans changed as other shippers took note of Sea-Land’s initial success and offered their own solutions.  Most notably, dimensions changed to accommodate European needs and the hardware connecting boxes to trailers, ship racks and each other became simpler.  However, the central idea remained constant–a box that manufacturers could load at a factory, that trucks and trains could ship to and from a port, that shippers could load and unload easily and that customers could unload at their facilities.

Since marketers live and die by new ideas, they should learn to think through the problem the way McLean did.  So you’ve created a great new idea to sell soap?  Congratulations.  Now, show us what it looks like to consumers and to retailers.  Show us what it looks like in every medium you plan to use and maybe a few that you don’t.

Go further.  Show us how it might transform the category by thinking through how competitors might respond.  How might your company respond?  Would your team wear the idea on a t-shirt?  Why or why not?

Your idea might not survive intact.  Maybe a word or two might have to change for legal reasons.  Maybe your t-shirt idea falls flat because the client insists on wearing ties every day.  So what?  If you’ve created all these extensions of your idea, you’ve created a vision.

Anyone can argue with an idea.  It’s much harder to deny a well-thought-out vision.

Maybe equating metal shipping containers to a vision seems like a stretch.  However, McLean’s vision was a stretch.  And he stretched it far enough to encircle the globe.

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