The old adage says "build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." It is a bedrock myth of capitalism, but many superior products are not successful and an inordinate number of mediocre or even bad products are best sellers. And then there is the phenomenon of products that seem to explode on the market.
Consider the pomegranate. A decade ago pomegranates were an obscure fruit that you occasionally encountered in a little corner of the produce section. It wasn't clear what you should do with it and when you cut it open it had all those red pulpy seeds to deal with. So the poor pomegranate mostly languished in the US. Then suddenly came the great pomegranate explosion. Now, capitalism would have us believe that this occurred through the invisible hand of the market and the "law" of supply and demand. So apparently millions of us woke up one morning and had to have pomegranate juice for breakfast and pomegranate shampoo and pomegranate infused everything. That invisible hand has quite a sense of humor.
Kale, apparently taking a page from the pomegranate folks, has seen a similar trajectory. I don't recall suddenly having a hankering for kale but there it is in my salad. At more than one dinner gathering I see roasted kale regularly among the snacks and hors d'oeuvres. A restaurant is offering a kale Caesar salad. Romaine is dead apparently. Kale is a lovely dark green but when roasted it has the texture of crumpled up newspaper. Not the attribute that what you might expect in a trendy food.
An historical perspective might be instructive. My wife's book group recently read a book called "Jell-O Girls" and mounted an expedition to the Jell-O Museum (now you know where all those Thanksgiving Jell-O molds her grandmother used ended up). Pearle Bixby Wait trademarked Jell-O in 1897 but sales languished. The brand was sold to Orator Francis Woodward, who devised a marketing strategy that sent armies of salesmen (ah, the good old days when men were not afraid to be selling Jell-O) door to door giving out Jell-O and cookbooks. They then went to local grocery stores and told them to expect a lot of folks to be asking for Jell-O so they better order some. Woodward coupled this with ads in magazines like the "Ladies Home Journal" and the rest is history. Jell-O became a great success and made the Woodward family very rich.
So it seems the key to success is not a better mousetrap or dessert but a better marketing plan. For both the pomegranate and kale the sudden upsurge in these products was accompanied by numerous articles about their health benefits, calling them superfoods and touting their virtues. Interesting that despite this sudden increase in demand there was never a shortage of pomegranates or kale. Now kale I can understand - it grows quickly, like lettuce, so you plant more to meet demand, but pomegranates? It takes at least 2-3 years for a pomegranate tree to even begin to produce fruit, so it would seem that someone had planned ahead and was expecting the surge in demand. All part of a good marketing plan.
But marketing does not just bring to our attention little-known products, it goes further and creates markets for products that do not exist. Think of the waffle machine that graces the breakfast counter at nearly every mid-level hotel and motel. First, enterprising hotel chains decided the way to get more customers than their competitors down the road was to offer a "free" breakfast. I put that in quotes because of course the breakfast is not free, it is paid for in your room charge. In fact, the breakfast is not only not free but you may actually be subsidizing other guests. I realized this as I was sitting and eating yogurt and a banana while a group at the next table was making their third trip for bacon and eggs and waffles. It all has to be paid for, and so those who eat less help pay for those who eat more. I'd like it better if what I didn't eat went to hungry kids.
But I digress. In the beginning of the free breakfast competition the food was mostly cereal and stale pastries. Enter the marketing genius with the self-service waffle machine. With the addition of this simple, low-maintenance machine hotels could (and did) advertise HOT breakfast and the rest, as they say, is history.
Good marketing is much more important and powerful than a good product. Remember telephones? I mean real telephones connected to what are now disparagingly called land lines. You picked up the receiver and talked to someone and, get this, they could hear you clearly with no missing words or static. Enter the cell phone. For years the words most often spoken on a cell phone were "Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?" These were phones with incredibly bad service - you often could not hear the person you were calling, there were (and are) frequent dead spots and even today the normal quality pales in comparison to a phone on a land line. This either demonstrates the power of marketing or the stupidity of the consumer - you decide.
Speaking of the dubious intelligence of us consumers and the power of marketing, think about the rise of Starbucks. By creating a mythology around an existing common product, using exotic names for small, medium and large, and renaming counter staff baristas they were able to triple the price of coffee. Others jumped on the bandwagon in one form or another. For example, Keurig essentially reinvented instant coffee compliments of a hundred-dollar machine instead of a teaspoon stirring in a cup. Marketing genius indeed.
And I cannot close without noting that what marketing has done for so many products of dubious quality it has also done for politics. Every candidate must be the new and improved version, with a beguiling back story, product endorsements and placements, a book for sale and, if at all possible, be a TV star or other celebrity. And, as with the cell phone, we consumers seem more than willing to buy one.
So instead of building a better mousetrap build a better consumer trap. It could make you rich.
One Small Voice
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