Under the Influence

Why sometimes the best way to sell a product is to increase its price

An interesting lesson in marketing from one Bruce Lee.

In the excellent biography Bruce Lee: A Life by Mathew Polly, he tells an interesting pricing story.

In the mid '60s, Bruce Lee is co-starring in the Green Hornet TV show as Kung Fu sidekick, Kato. But when the show is cancelled, Lee struggles financially.

Then one day, several businessmen offer him the chance to start a nation-wide chain of Kato Kung Fu schools. The businessmen would fund it and Lee would add his name, prestige and martial arts expertise. It would be an instant empire and the revenue would probably set Lee up for life.

But he turns it down. He has no interest in managing franchised McDojos. It would effectively end his acting career and turn him into a corporate executive. Instead, Lee wanted to take a gamble on his Hollywood dream. He knew the ticket in depended on who you know. So he decided to craft his art into a luxury item for celebrities.

One of his first students is Jay Sebring, hairdresser to the stars. Lee notices Sebring charges celebrities $50 for a $2 haircut. He wonders if he can do the same thing with Kung Fu lessons.

He begins by charging $25 an hour, the equivalent of $190 in today's dollars. Pricey - but he gets no takers.

One day, he bumps into the co-producer of the Green Hornet series and he asks Lee if he has found any other acting work. Lee says no. The producer says "Why don't you use your talent to teach celebrities Kung Fu?" Lee says he was trying, but had no luck.

The producer asks him how much he was charging. Lee says $25 per hour and wonders if it's too much.

The producer tells him it's way too little. He tells Lee that Hollywood is full of writers, actors, directors and producers who are suffering from middle-aged, macho syndrome. Guys who want to appear tough and virile. Guys who have money to burn. And learning Kung Fu from Bruce Lee would be right up their alley.

So in 1968, Lee printed up new business cards that offered his services for $150 per hour. Within weeks, his students included James Coburn, Blake Edwards James Garner and Steve McQueen.

By the end of 1968, Bruce Lee was the hottest self-defence instructor in Hollywood. He was so overwhelmed with requests, he raised his fee to $275. That's over $2,000 in today's dollars. Per hour.

It was only by raising his price that he attracted business.

In marketing, to successfully position a product with a high price, you must establish the high-price position with a unique product story. And you have to do that in a category where shoppers are receptive to a high-priced brand.

Bruce Lee had a very unique story. He was a once-in-a-lifetime martial artist.

And he fished where the fish were: Hollywood.

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Under the Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio, a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels, so host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.

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The Terstream Mobile Recording Studio. (Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)