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Smart Marketing: Beyond Selling Products


by Keith Yancy

Not long ago, Josh Bradley, an acquaintance of mine (via LinkedIn) sent me a message, asking me to give him my reaction to his blog post, “Can Smart Marketing Sell Anything?” (http://corporategraffiti.com/can-smart-marketing-sell-anything/).  In short, Josh argues that even poor ideas or products can be effectively marketed, if in fact the marketing strategy is smart and clever enough.  He cites several examples of smart marketing selling less-than-stellar ideas or products, including lousy movies like The Human Centipede, Bitch brand wine, and even the Iraq War.

My reaction?  Josh is absolutely right, of course.  Damn near anything can be marketed, and if done well and convincingly, someone — or many someones — will plunk down good money to buy it.  The famous quote (incorrectly attributed to P.T. Barnum) that “There’s a sucker born every minute,” is famous for a reason: it’s true.  Pet rocks, Chia Pets, battery-powered pumpkin carving knives (don’t ask)… someone will buy it, if the “sell” is effective. 

Good salespeople know this instinctively.  A good salesperson’s greatest attribute is his/her ability to determine what’s important to the customer and show how their product meets the customer’s wants and needs.  Marketing operates basically on the same principle — appealing to customer fear, or altruism, or even sense of humor.  The trick is to find the best approach and make your product stand out from the competition. 

Obviously, Josh’s position in this argument is pretty strong.  The only thing I would add to his perspective, however, is this truth really extends beyond marketing.  Josh tips his hat to this fact himself with his mention of the Iraq War, and included a description of how Colin Powell effectively “marketed” the need to go to war, despite the fact that evidence later refuted the presence of weapons of mass destruction.

Since Josh started down the road to a “broader view” of marketing, allow me to go the rest of the way: Bad ideas, cruel ideas, stupid ideas, even deadly ideas have been and continue to be “sold” to people every day.  Consider the fact that many of the “assumptions” in history were once ideas that were, in a real sense, marketed to those who would listen, believe and buy into them.  Women are less intelligent/capable than men; black people are less than/inferior to white people; celebrities are somehow smarter/wiser/better than non-celebrities are just a few examples.  The Nazis were expert marketers and propagandists of their ideology, which ultimately paved the way for millions of people to be exterminated while the local populations not only showed indifference, but in many instances, participated in the process.

At the core of all this — whether it be smart marketing or effective propaganda — is the effective use (or manipulation) of words and language.  In fact, I believe that words and language are the most powerful weapons in the human arsenal to motivate and convince others.  Just as propaganda can lead to great human failures, words and rhetoric can inspire people to fight for moral reasons (think Allies in World War II), stand up for civil rights (I read Martin Luther King’s speeches, in part, for the sheer brilliance of his writing) and champion the causes of the poor, sick, oppressed and powerless among us. 

In other words, language is incredibly powerful, and when the right combination of people, ideas and language comes together, the power of that combination can sell almost any idea, at least to some people.  Show me the greatest marketing campaigns in history, and I’ll show you that each of these campaigns were made by talented people with a powerful idea and the language/strategy to sell it. 

The power of persuasion is merely a person’s ability to sell his/her ideas.  Marketing is this attribute focused in a business context.  The best politicians, activists, and religious leaders instinctively understand this and are capable of selling their ideas to the public, sometimes with good motives… and sometimes not. 

Other factors, of course, may influence a customer’s thinking, including product placement, price, packaging, etc.  And again… these factors can apply beyond marketing to any persuasive exercise.  Leaders, prophets, and dictators understand the value of “theater” — that is, dramatic displays that underscore their message to great effect.  The next time you see a single mother or a wounded veteran pointed out at a State of the Union address, recognize that this is simply a President using examples to “sell” his ideas or policies.

Can smart marketing sell anything?  Yes, Josh, it most certainly can, and does.  Whether that “thing” is a product, an ideology, or even a point of view.  And being a “smart marketer” in any avocation — whether it be in business, politics, law, whatever — is a talent that everyone values, whether they recognize it as such or not.

Thanks, Josh, for inviting me to share my thoughts on the subject.

Until next time… 🙂

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