Marketing myth

Can good marketing fool people all the time?

Illustration: Kishore Das

There is a lot more to marketing than just advertising — understanding consumer needs, crafting a product or service which fulfils such needs, market segmentation, positioning, pricing, distribution and promotion, to name a few. However the most visible manifestation of all this is advertising. So many attribute success or failure of a product to just advertising.

Everyone would agree that marketing is essential to sell any product — ‘make and they will buy it’ is not true. Even when a brand does not resort to conventional advertising to win customers (e.g Google in its early years) it does resort to marketing in some form or the other. However, there seems to be a belief that great marketing can sell anything — ‘he can sell ice to an eskimo’ being used as a compliment for a good sales person. The flip side of that argument is that people can be fooled into buying something they don’t need or is against their best interests. Sure enough, there are people who get lured by tall promises and get tricked into parting with their money only to be deceived. Such instances give a bad name to marketing and advertising painting the practitioners as snake oil salesmen in shiny suits.

However this ‘fooled by marketing’ argument is not only used in cases where people have been cheated but even against proven, long-term business successes such as Apple. The iSheep argument, reserved for Apple loyalists, implies that they are always ‘taken in’ by marketing speak and buy into inferior products. However, people forget that businesses are built by creating repeat purchases and getting new customers into one’s fold — not just through one-off sales. So if an Apple product is bought once because they managed to fool someone into buying, how come they are such a success even after all these years? The iPhone could not survived 10 years to become one of the most successful products ever if it depended on fooling the same iSheep every time, right?

Political marketing is another domain where this argument is used, against an opponent who has won at the hustings or is popular. Of course, politics is different from conventional marketing of a consumer product. People may vote in someone for any of these reasons: disappointment with the incumbent, hope in an untested contestant, reward for good performance, identity politics, money power and so on. Even if that is so, to suggest that somehow people are stupid enough to vote for someone many times over merely on the basis of marketing claims (without any substance or performance) belittles voter intelligence. Such arguments only serve to keep a political party’s current fan base happy about their choice. I admit that an element of spin is required to market anything — an idea, a person, a brand. Anyone who merely presents an argument factually without any ‘exaggeration’ is unlikely to cut through the clutter and win over hearts and minds.

Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster, said David Ogilvy. We have seen the flip side of it too with some brands winning in the marketplace despite mediocre advertising. Many successful car variants in India for example, have had pretty run-of-the-mill advertising — what clicked in the marketplace was the combination of product quality, pricing and word-of-mouth. Many successful small businesses thrive purely on their service or product quality with little or no conventional marketing to speak of — with repeat customers being their best advertising. The quote 'You can’t fool all of the people all of the time’ is attributed to Abraham Lincoln though there is some doubt if he actually said it. Despite that without a shadow of doubt, the sentiment behind it is still true even after all these years.

The writer blogs about advertising, branding and marketing strategy at and tweets @bhatnaturally