Marketing Expert's Corner

This article written in 2009

This Month's Haiku

It pays to be ignorant,
to be dumb
to be dull
and be ignorant
      -1950's radio & TV show theme song

Part one of this series covered idiot strategy, where it doesn't matter if you execute better or push harder because you're simply on the wrong track.  Last month, we looked at situations where the strategy is fine, but the tactics are shopworn and ineffective. 

This month, we're looking at a totally different Idiot Marketing situation:  where you have to market to idiots.  In the tradition of our August amusement edition (e.g., the Wisdom of CrowdsDon't Ask/Don't Tell, and Weenies), we'll be treating a serious subject in a light way.

Idiot Marketing, Part 3:  Marketing to Idiots

Anybody with a sales or marketing bone in their body should be cringing just to read that section header.  But if you look at it objectively, there are a lot of real world situations where the task at hand is to market to people who don't care the way you do, or know as much as you do, or think the way you do. 

"Here's Your Sign"

So who called them an idiot?  Certainly not sales (at least not out loud).  Probably not marketing (at least not in writing).  But listen carefully to engineers (including the CTO or even the CEO) who are frustrated about the prospects' inability to appreciate the beauty of their technology, and you'll hear it.  This is particularly evident with engineers who produce:

  • lousy user interfaces
  • infrastructure that is architecturally brilliant but has little-to-no end user functionality
  • abstruse algorithms and convoluted APIs
  • low-quality or fragile products
  • products that try to break new ground
  • products that are trying to change the rules on the market's 800-lb gorilla
  • products that have not had a lot of user input during the design.

Let's look at that last bullet first.  Even though product design problems show up in engineering, they're reflective of systemic problems, and marketing should be leading the charge to solving it.  As I've written endlessly, design your customer before you design your product.  And if you can, use Agile methodologies to embed the customer in your actual design process.  I'm not talking focus groups here:  exemplar customers need to touch the product every month or so throughout the design cycle.

The rest of the items in the list are really indicators of situations where engineering is arrogant, or defensive, or dealing with customers they don't understand.  In high tech, it's all too common for engineers to be designing things for themselves...and they can't understand why the finished product doesn't fly off the shelves.  The most important thing marketing can do is define the target customer, their habits and preferences and needs.  Engineering should see that the requirements are not marketing's requirements...they're the customer's requirements.

"Insanely Great"

Sometimes, you really are trying to break new ground.  In these cases, conventional market research does you no good, because the customer has no idea that they need your shiny new object, and they don't have a clear idea of exactly how it should work, look, or feel.  For people who've only used film cameras, how can they know what they'll really want in a digital camera (hint:  until they've used one, they won't think to ask for "quick startup time" or "picture cycle time")?  So if your product or service is pushing the envelope, your prospects really are in the dark, and getting them out of idiot behavior means market education.

This isn't just a B2B problem.  It happens all the time in consumer gadgets.  It can happen in cosmetics and soft-drinks and "green" laundry soap and insurance.  Market education -- getting the customers aware of an unfocused problem ("opportunity"), interested in finding the solution, desiring a new solution, and asking the right questions -- is a very expensive task.  This is where community of interest marketing (3 separate links there) can yield huge results, because the prospects teach each other.  You'll need to find appropriate ways to use hype, influencing through bloggers and other "authoritative sources" to raise the bar of the market's intelligence and information.  Even videos (such as BlendTec's famous "Will it Blend" series) can get the message across cheaply, and they can be wildly effective if they go viral.

"Eating the Dog Food"

Sometimes, the prospects are a bunch of idiots because they refuse to eat our dog food.  Even though our dog food is healthful and measurably better than the competition, the dogs just don't like the flavor.  If market education is tough, just imagine how difficult it is to change peoples' tastes.  Is $5 bottled water better tasting than .01¢ tap water?  It took Perrier and others 30 years of advertising effort to make that change of preferences happen.  Luxury goods frequently have this problem, but when marketing to the US consumers, even something as obvious as "safe car" or "reliable car" can take decades to overcome "fins are stylish."  Ever wonder why GM can make quality, reliable, and even stylish cars everywhere in the world except the US?  Partly because elsewhere they have the advantage of selling to markets that demand those attributes from the word go.  In the US, they have to contend with "Aunt Millie" or "Bubba" and their preferences that are, well, like an idiot's.

Don't delude yourself:  sometimes a "changing preferences" problem is really a "lousy product" problem in disguise.  Make sure that your product features, performance, reliability, quality, and fit-and-finish are up to snuff (or even superior) before you invest in trying to change customer tastes.  Because it's way cheaper to fix a product than it is to change a customer.

"There's a Sucker Born Every Minute"

Sometimes you have to depend on the stupidity of your customers in order to make the sale.  There are billion-dollar industries that make their numbers by preying on customer ignorance (ARMs, CDOs and junk financial instruments), forgetfulness (subscription "services" that know you don't read your credit card statement every month), or fallibility (check out Gotcha Capitalism for examples of credit card and cell phone plans so convoluted that no customer understands them).  

OK, you've got some merchandise to unload.  The less the customer knows, the better.  But that's not marketing.  That's barely even selling.  It verges on swindling.  And if you don't know the difference, you need to pay a lot more attention to these newsletters.

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