I was tidying up my bookshelf last night, and I happened to open up my copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s What The Dog Saw.
The first chapter in the book is about Ron “The Pitchman” Popeil, infomercial superstar. You might recognize him as the “Wait, there’s more!” guy on TV. Described as “The Salesman of The Century”,
Ron personally made over $100,000,000 for himself, and over $2,000,000,000 in sales altogether!
I wanted to know everything this guy knew about marketing. Here’s what I learnt:
1: Marketing begins with the utility provided by the product itself.
“They (Popeil & Co) believed that it was a mistake to separate product development from marketing, as most of their contemporaries did, because to them the two were indistinguishable: the object that sold best was the one that sold itself. ” – Gladwell
The canonical story is that Ron “built a better rotisserie, then went out and pitched it himself.” People tend to focus on the “pitched it himself” bit and overlook the “better rotisserie” bit. Even the title of the article, “The Pitchman”- emphasizes the pitching over the building. But Ron would’ve refused to sell anything that he didn’t sincerely believe was better than everything else out there.
Perhaps most telling of all is this: While Gladwell calls Popeil “The Pitchman”, Ronco.com calls him “Ron Popeil, Inventor.”
2: Ruthless attention to detail is a competitive advantage.
Popeil has said the inspiration for the Inside-The-Shell Egg Scrambler was his lifelong revulsion toward incompletely blended scrambled eggs.”
His lifelong revulsion towards incompletely blended scrambled eggs! Doesn’t that make you sit up? Maybe you’ve been suffering from incompletely blended scrambled eggs and you never realized it!
There are hints of Ron’s obsessiveness everywhere. Developing this sort of taste invariably requires deep study. Ron’s last project was a deep fryer that he’d been working on for four years.
From the very beginning, Ron insisted that the entire door (of the Rotisserie) be a clear pane of glass, and that it slant back to let in the maximum amount of light, so that the chicken or the turkey or the baby-back ribs turning inside would be visible at all times.”
This manic, almost inescapable attention to detail may sound familar- it also famously afflicted Steve Jobs.
3: Customers need to know exactly how the product works.
The Veg-O-Matic was, in the relevant sense, utterly transparent. You took the potato and you pushed it through the Teflon-coated rings and–voilà!–you had French fries. There were no buttons being pressed, no hidden and intimidating gears: you could show-and-tell the Veg-O-Matic in a two-minute spot and allay everyone’s fears about a daunting new technology.”
This is really an elaboration of point 1. It’s self-evident when you point it out- of COURSE customers need to know how the product works! But it’s astonishing how many everyday products are poorly designed. Look at the average washing machine or television remote control, for instance.
The more clearly consumers understand how something works, the more easily they can imagine themselves using it, the more they’ll use it, and the more they’ll tell others about it. All of which leads to more sales.
4: Customers need to see how the product fits in their existing routine.
“Like most great innovations, it (the Veg-O-Matic) was disruptive. And how do you persuade people to disrupt their lives? Not merely by ingratiation or sincerity, and not by being famous or beautiful. You have to explain the invention to customers– not once or twice but three or four times, with a different twist each time. You have to show them exactly how it works and why it works, and make them follow your hands as you chop liver with it, and then tell them precisely how it fits into their routine, and, finally, sell them on the paradoxical fact that, revolutionary as the gadget is, it’s not at all hard to use.”
Ron Popeil was an absolute master at this. He was calm, confident, reassuring.
Tesla Motors is great at this too, with their emphasis on making electric cars a seamless, natural substitute for gasoline cars. Again, it goes into the product itself. The Tesla Model S was designed to fit the natural cadence of typical road trips, and the charging stations emulate gas stations (even though they don’t have to).
If your customers can’t see how your product fits in their existing routine, they’re not going to buy it.
5: Customers trust one another over marketers and salespeople.
We don’t use canned testimonials. I take the first 250 machines that come out of the factory and give them to the people who will be in our audience. They use the machine for 30 days, and then they come sit in our audience. I remember one testimonial for my Electric Food Dehydrator where a woman said, “My husband is on the USS Kitty Hawk. He is stationed somewhere near Saudi Arabia, and when he writes me, he doesn’t say, ‘Hello; how are you, honey?’ He says, ‘Send more beef jerky.’ ” You couldn’t write a testimonial like that if you tried.’ – Ron Popeil
The best marketers have the privilege of marketing the best products, so they get to look even more talented than they actually are. You can’t separate Steve Jobs’ sales pitches from the products he was pitching, or from his adoring fanbase.
If you build a great enough product that solve a real problem, borne out of obsessive attention to detail, you can depend on your delighted customers to bear a significant share of the marketing load.
6: Some products will be more successful than others. You won’t know which in advance.
I did a little digging and went looking on YouTube for Ronco videos and found that there were over 30 Ronco products! And those are just the ones that made it to the informercial stage- we don’t know how many inventions never left the drawing board.
Most people don’t remember all of them. The Ronco website itself lists only 5. It’s tempting to think “He was a genius and everything he touched turned to gold,” but the reality is- even with Ron’s amazing charisma and inventiveness, he came up with a whole bunch of products that didn’t sell superbly well. (They sold well, just not “Legendary” well.)
You’ll never know what sells and what doesn’t until you do it.
- Start with real problems that people actually have. Ideally, you’d be someone who experiences this problem too. If you don’t, you’d better get in the trenches and learn.
- Tinker away until you arrive at a solution that you sincerely believe to be superior. Verify this with rigorous testing. Popeil went through over 12 iterations of the Rotisserie. He knew it was as good as it could possibly be.
- Once you’ve found the best possible solution, explain it to others. Before he made informercials, Popeil was selling to live audiences. Apply the same rigor to your explanations, to your pitch. Take them apart. Show everyone exactly how and why it works, with the confidence you’ll only get from seasoned practice.
- The product is always the star. It’s tempting to want to be a huge personality like Branson, Jobs or Musk- but in all of those cases, the personalities acted in symbiosis with the product.
- Experiment. You’ll never know in advance what’s going to really take off. You may have a rough idea, but the only way to know for sure is to do it.