A Good Product (Mostly) Sells Itself – a good product doesn’t need excessive marketing

April 26, 2012
6 min read

Hey, advertiser. Stop trying so hard to get my attention.

Let me rephrase that: You’re welcome to a moment of my attention, in which you may communicate (in an entertaining yet succinct manner, please) your product or service and its benefits. If I’m interested, I’ll give it a try. If I like it, I’ll buy it again; I may even tell my friends about it.

This process seems self-evident. Yet many marketers have gotten caught up in getting attention for attention’s sake–a desperate race for YouTube views or Facebook likes. And as the cacophony of marketers screaming ‘Look at me! Follow me! Like me!’ grows ever louder, many seem to think the only way to be heard is to turn up their dial even higher.

It’s time to step off the ‘look at me!’ treadmill and get back to what really sells a product: a good product. Herewith, two simple but crucial concepts that seem to have been lost in the race for attention.

1. Ubiquity doesn’t guarantee success

Data from Mintel’s Attitudes to Internet Advertising US July 2011 report illustrate a fascinating paradox. When we zeroed in on those who’d opted out of watching an online video because an ad was inserted before or during the video, less than a quarter (22%) said it was because they don’t like watching commercials in general. But nearly half (48%) said it was because they “don’t like being forced to watch anything.”

In other words, we don’t necessarily have an issue with advertising in and of itself. We just hate having it force-fed to us.

Too many marketers today have been seduced by the notion that being seen–over and over again, anywhere and everywhere you can be–leads to being wanted.

I’d argue that many of the most loved brands–Starbucks, Whole Foods, Chipotle–invest much more money in improving their products and services than in advertising them. And when they do advertise, they focus on delivering a meaningful message rather than garnering fans, likes or page views. For example, Chipotle’s Super Bowl ad was a simple yet powerful treatise on humane farming practices, reinforcing its image as an ethical company with a quality product. No gimmicks necessary.

Meanwhile, there’s no definitive evidence that buzzed-about campaigns have a long-term impact on sales.

Take the famous 2010 Old Spice “Smell Like a Man” campaign. Huge viral success. But the boost to Procter & Gamble’s bottom line? “Impossible to know,” P&G spokesman Mike Norton conceded to AdAge. While Old Spice saw sales increase in the wake of its campaign, so too did just about every other major men’s body wash brand: According to Mintel’s Soap, Bath and Shower Products US March 2011 report, the category as a whole grew 11.7% in 2010, fueled by Old Spice’s success but also by lines like Dove’s Men+Care, which enjoyed $28 million in first-year sales–without the likes of an Isaiah Mustafa.

Department store magnate John Wanamaker famously stated, “_Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”_

Advertising plays a significant role in selling a product. But we don’t know which elements of advertising make the difference; in particular it’s not clear whether quality (a compelling, memorable message) or quantity (how often that message is absorbed) wins the game. Presumably, a bit of both are critical, but there’s no question that in the end, a positive experience with the brand itself–not with the advertising–is what keeps a consumer coming back.

This leads me to axiom number two.

2. A good reputation is earned, not bought through excessive marketing

Todd Carmicheal, CEO of fair trade coffee company La Colombe Torrefaction, said something at a recent conference that really stuck with me: “_Too many companies have invested 99% in the front of the house_meaning marketing, PR and other spin-meisters and 1% in the back of the house the actual product.”

The fact is consumers will always care more about the merits of a product rather than the marketing surrounding it.

A great example of how quality trumps branding can be found in the ongoing success of private-label goods. Initially attractive purely because of price point, private-label sales have held steady because consumers realized that a store brand doesn’t necessarily indicate poor quality, and on the flipside, a cartoon mascot and catchy tagline don’t guarantee high quality. Indeed, according to Mintel’s Private Label Food US November 2011 report, only about a third (34%) of consumers say it’s “generally worth spending more for brand names.”

Meanwhile, in the same month, Havas Media published the results of a survey of 50,000 consumers across 14 markets–France, Spain, UK, Germany, Italy, US, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, China, Japan and India. The study revealed that only 5% of brands in the US “are seen to have a noticeable impact on our sense of wellbeing and quality.” Worse still, most Americans wouldn’t care if the vast majority of brands (82%, according to the data) disappeared tomorrow.

So are we entering an age of brand blindness–a bold new era when products are judged by the content of their character rather than the budget of their marketing department?

Probably not. After all, there’s no way to measure the more subliminal role marketing and branding play in our purchase decisions; just because we report being unaffected by brand names or advertising doesn’t mean we actually are.

Still, in the past few years consumers have been increasingly looking outside their tried-and-true stable of brands–at first because they wanted to save money but eventually because they were actually satisfied with the trade-overs. And at the end of the day, it’s the product that sells a product.


We live in a crowded world: crowded shelves, crowded city streets, crowded airwaves, television waves, screen space. That makes it harder than ever to stand out, and it’s tempting to resort to ‘look at me!’ tactics. But amidst all the shrieking, it’s the low, steady, confident voices that get heard and–more importantly–listened to.

A good product won’t sell if no one knows about it. But an inferior product won’t sell (at least not for very long) even if everyone knows about it. The key is finding that balance between ‘front of house’ and ‘back of house.’

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